Ousmane Sembène was a Senegalese author who turned to filmmaking because he wanted to reach a wider audience than the few well-to-dos who read his books. His debut short film is 1963’s Barom Sarrett, and his debut feature was 1966’s Black Girl, two films that showcase the budding of a brilliant filmmaker. These are significant milestones in film history being among the very first films made in Africa by an African. Today, the Criterion Collection is releasing an edition of Black Girl that includes, among a host of supplements, Barom Sarrett. It’s likely to be one of their most important releases of the year.
Black Girl (whose original French title is La Noire de…, suggesting ownership) is an adaptation of one of Sembène’s own stories. Sembène got the idea one day when he read a brief newspaper article about an African woman in France. He wanted to do a bit of reverse engineering to explore the pathways that could lead a woman to do what this woman does.
The concept is relatively simple: while in Dakar, Senegal, a wealthy French couple (“Madame” played by Anne-Marie Jelinek, and “Monsieur” played by Robert Fontaine) hire Diouana (M’Bissine Thérèse Diop) to be a nanny. Diouana enjoys this work and gets along with Madame in particular, even gifting her an African mask. When the couple leave Dakar to return to their Mediterranean home in Antibes, France, they present Diouana with a wonderful opportunity. They’d like her to work for them in Antibes, covering her travel, room, and board.
The film actually begins when Diouana arrives in France (we get the backstory later). It’s a new life, and she is excited to get to see France. Though from the outset she is disrespected and forced to open her own doors and get her own luggage, she ignores these early signs that this arrangement in France will not be like the arrangment in Dakar.
It’s soon too clear to ignore, though. The family did not hire her to be a nanny. Indeed, the children are not even staying at this home. Diouana is the maid, and Madame possesses a strong sense of ownership, even telling Diouana to change out of her nice clothes: Diouana’s a maid after all, and should dress according to that station.
In some regards, Black Girl is blunt — Diouana’s interior monologue plays often though we can see clearly on the screen how she’s feeling — but the film is also subtle i nmagnificent ways. For example, by forcing Diouana to change out of her lovely dress, Madame is forcing Diouana to give up something that makes her feel beautiful. The relationship between Diouana and Madame is painful and complicated as it is used to examine destructive cultural expectations at a time when most people would say Diouana is not a slave but is free to do as she will. Madame’s actions are inexcusable, though she can easily excuse them to herself as an employer. To her and her husband Diouana, who had no indication she would be doing all of the work she is asked to do, looks lazy. For his part, Monsieur seems less comfortable with the arrangement, sensing some kind of injustice or destructive force, but, for a variety of complicated reasons, he does nothing.
And then there is the apartment itself, the place where Diouana is stuck. Though she hoped to see France, the family does not allow to leave. She has her duties, after all. The apartment is a stark, white world. On one wall hangs the African mask Diouana gave Madame, but it’s out of place and, at the same time, serves to remind Diouana what is happening to her.
The Criterion Collection Edition:
- On Ousmane Sembène: This is a 19:52-minute supplement in which filmmaker and professor of French Samba Gadjigo. Gadjigo talks about African cinema before Sembène, which was mostly French controlled, and how Sembène came to the forefront.
- M’Bissine Thérèse Diop: In a personal interview that runs 12:32 minutes, the film’s star talks about how she came to be in the film. She was not an actress, and she did the film mainly because she thought it would be fun. She talks about working with Sembène and her own fears about how the film would be received.
- On Black Girl: This is another interview, running 21:37 minutes, this time with filmmaker Manthia Diawara. Other than the short film below, this is the most valuable and insightful supplement on the disc. Here Diawara goes in depth on the film itself, talking about its inception as well as its themes and importance in African cinema.
- Color Sequence: Originally, Diouana’s initial car ride in France was filmed in color, and this 1:09-minute supplement includes this restored footage. It’s a lovely idea, showing how the film could have utilized this to subvert the themes of black and white, emphasizing the stark contrasts in the apartment.
- Prix Jean Vigo: This is a 2:02-minute excerpt from the March 22, 1966 broadcast of the French program JT de 20h where Sembène quickly talks about Black Girl after it was awarded the Prix Jean Vigo.
- Borom Sarret: This is an invaluable supplement of Sembène’s first film, restored in 4K. It looks lovely. The film, a sometimes shocking look at the struggles of a Dakar cart driver, won first prize at the 1963 Tours Film Festival in France.
- On Borom Sarret: Manthia Diawara returns for a nice 12:36-minute supplement to Borom Sarret.
- Sembène: The Making of African Cinema: In 1994 Manthia Diawara and Ngugi wa Thiong’o made this 1:00:38-hour documentary about Sembène. This is a wide-ranging documentary that not only covers what we might expect — how Sembène came to filmmaking, and the films themselves — but also Sembène’s thoughts on film history and colonialism.
- The disc also include the trailer and an essay, “Self, Possessed,” by Ashley Clark.