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Of Love and Other Demons: ‘Black Girl’ (Ousmane Sembène, 1966)

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As the first feature length fiction by Ousmane Sembène, Black Girl (La Noire de…) helped propel the director’s European career. The story of a black servant from Senegal hired to work in France, the film depicts the quiet rage of anti-oppression. The French title, alluding at once to Max Ophüls, hints more clearly to the stalled conversation of France’s “polite” racial discomfort. It signals a marker of difference for the lead character’s blackness (Mbissine Thérèse Diop as Diouana) but also the disquieting reluctance of her employers to probe deeper. The bosses play at being liberal defenders of African rights, bringing on Diouana in order to save her from a life in Senegal. Try as they might to play at treating her as a human being, they are never able to treat her as anything more than a child or an animal.

A voice over signals that after a few weeks living in France, Diouana’s unhappiness continues to grow. She came to watch children but has become a housekeeper; she’s not that good at the work and doesn’t enjoy her job. As Diouana cleans the floors, her mistress scolds her with a raised voice for being too dressed up: “this isn’t a party!” She then offers Diouana an apron, and without any respect for personal space or agency, she proceeds to put it around Diana’s waist — the first of many physical infringements on her autonomy. The stark contrast between Diouana’s internal monologue (where she illustrates her desires and dreams) and her reluctant domesticity creates a powerful effect. In a scene that follows — again with no regard for her personal will — a guest of the family gets up and declares to the table that he “has never kissed a Negress” and proceeds to kiss Diouana. “It’s in the spirit of good fun,” they say, “Diouana is being unreasonable for not enjoying her role as the centre of attention.”

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Diouana’s patience for her reluctant imprisonment begins to wane. All the promises of her mistress are long forgotten, and her life has become a living hell. The painfully white apartment of her boss becomes her prison and she has little refuge to escape. Sure, Diouana’s being paid (though clearly not regularly), but since she can’t read or write, her opportunities are limited. Alienated and isolated, Diouana’s employers fancy themselves as her saviors, when really, they are the harbinger of her damnation.

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Rather than capitulate, Diouana protests. She begins stripping herself of European life: she combs her hair into a natural hairstyle, she sheds her western clothes and she refuses to work. As if there was any doubt that her employment was akin to slavery, her mistress refuses to feed her until she becomes more obedient. Diouana removes an African mask she had once gifted the family from the wall, she will no longer allow her life to be fetishized and exploited. Structured around flashbacks, we watch Diouana’s love for the world fade into a whisper before being reignited with fiery rage. Her life in Senegal was far from ideal, but at least it was her own.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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