BLACK GIRL (Ousmane Sembène, 1965)

Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembène’s first feature is ruefully funny, painfully emotionally descriptive and, ultimately, sharply ironical. Its title, La Noire de . . ., consigns its spirited protagonist, Diouana, to the multitudes of anonymous souls who leave Africa and become stranded, lost in Europe. An also unnamed French white couple have lured Diouana from the breathing fabric of her Dakar community to their Riviera apartment. Their enticement: the job of caring for their children. France itself is a fringe benefit, but Diouana finds herself trapped in the apartment. (Her “escape” is mental—flashbacks of her life back home.) At first, the girl doesn’t even get to see the couple’s children. She keeps wondering where they are. Instead, she is set to washing laundry and cooking. When the three young children finally do materialize, all three jobs remain hers to fill: maid; cook; nanny. For all that, “Lazybones” is constantly scolded by her mistress for, well, everything: wearing the wrong shoes, not keeping her step quick enough, etc. This woman, we intuit, needs her meanness as some sort of outlet, given how completely her possessions and bourgeois comforts have absorbed her existence, and to bolster her wobbled sense of white superiority. (Recently a French colony, Senegal is now independent.)
     We know Diouana partly from her voiceover, which accompanies images of her, including those in the flat, sterile, stifling apartment. We thus get to hear Diouana’s intelligence and sensitivities at work—and as stream-of-consciousness, the twentieth century’s signature mode. Her being underscores and transcends individuality.
     Diouana struggles to maintain her grace, dignity, poise; but the only way to do that, it turns out, is to commit suicide—which she does in the bathtub! A lingering bother for her mistress!
     Diouana’s voiceover: its extinction is a piercing loss.

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