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The Shadow & Act Filmmaker Series: Let's Discuss Ousmane Sembène's 'Black Girl'

Features
by Tambay A. Obenson
March 9, 2013 2:45 PM
25 Comments
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First, a recap for those just joining us, or if you missed my previous announcements on this. NOTE: If you already know what we're doing here, feel free to skip ahead all the way down to the last few paragraphs, starting with "So, to kick things off..."

I first tried out this idea 3 years ago, on the old S&A site, but it didn't quite take off; so I killed it. 

I'm introducing it again, 3 years later, since the site's readership has grown tremendously over that time period - meaning, hopefully, participation will be much stronger than it was the first time around.

In short, I thought it'd be worthwhile to start what we could call a "Filmmakers series;" essentially, we pick a filmmaker of African descent - focusing especially on those filmmakers who aren't as widely known and appreciated, and thus are rarely talked about, even though the importance of the work that they've done demands that they are given more attention, and don't get lost in the annals of history.

We'll watch all their films in succession, and discuss on this blog. It'll be a bi-weekly thing - meaning, every 2 weeks, a film from the selected filmmaker's oeuvre will be assigned, and we all (those who want to participate in the discussion anyway) would then have 2 weeks to watch it. The following week, we'll talk about it collectively.

Hopefully, many of you will participate. It's kind of useless if it's just me yapping on in a post. It's supposed to be both an educational and an entertaining process. I certainly don't know everything, and I know some of you are even bigger cinephiles than I am, so it'll be a learning experience for me as well. And even if you aren't a cinephile, your opinions are still welcomed and embraced.

I'm starting the series with a non-American filmmaker, to shake things up a bit, since we tend to cover black American cinema more than any other part of the Diaspora, even though the mission of the site is to represent the entire Diaspora as well as we can (we're getting there, so hang on).

And what better filmmaker qualifies given my above criteria than Ousmane Sembène (a man often referred to as the "Father of African cinema").

It's a name that I hope most of you are familiar with - especially if you've been a regular reader of this blog since its inception.

But you may actually learn more about him via his films.

In the future, I'll try to pick filmmakers whose films can be readily accessed, and I know some of Sembene's films aren't on DVD just yet (not in the USA anyway) - notably Ceddo and Guelwaar, but some of them are. In fact, 3 of them are on Netflix's "Watch Instantly" feature, so within a few clicks, you can watch them right now (or put the DVDs on your Netflix queue).

Amazon also has some of them for sale.

Between those two sites, as well as your local indie video rental store (although they're a dying breed right now), you'll get access to most of Sembene's films.

So, to kick things off, we're starting with his first feature-length film (although it's only 66 minutes), La Noir De (aka Black Girl) - a film I'm sure some of you have already seen. It's a Netflix "Watch Instantly" option, so those with Netflix accounts should have seen it, and can still see it if you haven't.

You had until this past weekend to watch it, so, if you did watch it, or if you'd already seen it, let's get into Black Girl, shall we?

I'll just first intro it, and then you guys can jump in. I'll also participate in the comment section.

I've seen the film about a dozen times - so much that, in watching it again last week, I caught myself reciting Diouana's interior monologue in unison with the character.

Underneath the deceptively simple story of a Senegalese maid, Diouana (played by the lovely Mbissine Thérèse Diop), and her relationship with the white French couple she works for, reveals a film rich with symbolism and complexities that are essentially reactions to, and analysis of, the cultural legacy of colonialism - a recurrent theme you'll find in much of Sembène's work, as well as the untapped strength in African women.

At the center of Black Girl is Diouana's plight in Southern France, played out almost like a documentary, capturing the everyday mundanities of her monotonous life, and the resulting mental anguish she suffers, leading to the film's tragic conclusion.

I'll stop there for now, and turn things over to you all, and we'll see how this goes.

What were your reactions to the film? Even if they were *negative* feel free share, and include reasons why. Maybe for you the film raised more questions than you had answers; maybe there is one specific scene, sequence, or line of dialogue, or aspect of the film that confounded, inspired, or impressed you. Maybe the film upset you; maybe it challenged you; maybe it informed and enlightened you.

Whatever you felt about it, or want to share, or questions you want to ask, etc, please, by all means, jump right in. I'll try to play moderator.

And like I said, don't be shy, or feel like you have nothing to contribute.

I could write a dissertation on the film, but I'd rather hear what you have to say about it first, whether it's comments, questions, overall observations, general thoughts, etc. So, if you have anything to share, go right ahead!


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25 Comments

  • sleepy | March 30, 2013 12:00 AMReply

    Just bought the DVD of this film (I love 60's indie/foreign films anyway) a couple of years after seeing it in the theatre, along with another Sembene film called XALA. Nice to see a discussion of it---I didn't like the ending, because it made no sense to me whatsoever. Why couldn't the young woman just go back to her home after realizing she couldn't deal with the reality of her life as a maid in France? Was she too ashamed to go back home and admit she didn't make it, or to admit that her life in France wasn't all that to begin with? I do like the last shot with the child holding the mask in front of his face---it was so refreshing to see a rare film about Africa and African people from that era that didn't have the usual blatant racist stereotypes you would normally see.

  • sosgemini | March 23, 2013 7:29 PMReply

    Just watched the film and found myself rather frustrated by the main characters. She, IMHO, was not sympathetic enough for me to care about her situation. With that being said, after reading others comments here and at other sites, I might need to revisit and consider the symbolism that was apparently over my head. LOL hey, at least I am being honest.

  • Lulu | March 11, 2013 6:06 PMReply

    I discovered the third cinema with Black Girl. I think it is a really powerful film. That is true that Sembène often tried to denounce the imperialism and colonial legacy in his film. He also clearly denouces the condition of black women in Sub-Saharan Africa. I also watched Moolade from Sembène which is about female genital mutilation in Burkina Faso. But to go back on Black Girl, I think the aim of Sembène was to portrays the relationship Senegal had with France through and after the colonial era. The French couple representing France and the maid Senegal. A relationship that was supposed to be based on trust, love,hope, partnership but that takes a total different path resulting in the suicide of the maid.

  • Scout Tafoya | March 9, 2013 8:10 PMReply

    I've always loved this film because it has the appeal and style of new-wave groundbreakers like Breathless or The Householder, but it had to do for a continent what those films had only to do for a country. It's significance can't be understated. And that it manages to have real weight, weight that escapes the aforementioned films and feels far less strained than Sembene's Italian neorealist predecessors, makes it all the more impressive all these years later. A visibly angry yet graceful revolutionary mission statement. Should be required viewing for low-budge filmmakers not just for its simplicity and economy of storytelling, but the admirable circumstances of its creation. Sembene made something out of close to nothing as its possible to possess, yet those few elements have such richness to them. Essential cinema.

  • Tasha | March 8, 2013 7:04 PMReply

    I came too late to this but I'm really glad you are kicking this off.

  • ADDO | March 8, 2013 6:31 PMReply

    I thought the film was excellent !

  • Vanessa Martinez | March 7, 2013 11:16 PMReply

    Just wanted to add that I appreciated the film taking time to show her actually working, her tedious, monotonous, isolating routine of cleaning and watching after this couple's children. You felt tired and miserable along with her.

    She was also graceful, beautiful and elegant. While watching, I really thought she would escape and venture out to the city and and experience some joy in her life. But that never happens; quite the contrary, which makes the narrative all the more poignant.

  • Tambay | March 7, 2013 8:53 PMReply

    Thanks everyone for participating!

    @Blah, Blah - I'm considering the podcast format for the film discussion. I'm looking for someone to lead it, because I have too much to do already. But I agree that the podcast format will likely be a better fit.

  • blah, blah | March 7, 2013 7:19 PMReply

    I waited for an entire week for this discussion and came so late that everybody has already said what I wanted to say. So I'll just add that Black Girl was my favorite Sembenes film until I saw Mandabi, which I always considered the Senegalese Bicycle Thief. In fact, I think we can seriously "go in" on Sembenes entire catalog of work.

    Also, I wanted to request that you guys bring back the blogtalk show - perhaps just for the film discussion. I think that format will work better to facilitate discussion.

  • T. Dixon | March 7, 2013 3:34 PMReply

    (My comments are a bit short and rushed. I could benefit from seeing the film again. I just wanted to participate in the conversation at once, because if I wait until I watch the film again, I may not get back to this post.)

    I watched this film about a month ago. I was disturbed (and not surprised by the white couple's, more specifically the white woman's) treating Diouana like a child, an object, a spectacle, and as someone who owed them a sense of gratitude for having her in their house. I also found myself extremely sad at Diouana's exaltation by being hired initially to work in a white household. I understand that just that fact may have carried some unspoken "guarantees". I also understand Diouana's great desire to escape her what I think she came to think of as her "situation" once she was hired by the white woman.

    I think that the scenes where Diouana insisted on wearing her nice clothes even while cleaning the house spoke to her insistence on maintaining a sense of dignity in a situation in which her dignity was always under attack.

    I was extremely saddened that Diouana felt she had no recourse but to take her own life. But where was she to go? My take is that she realized that she had already sold herself, and no amount of money they gave her could buy back her soul or her sense of wholeness.

    I think there is much more to say (and in much more organized fashion). I look forward to the conversation, and thanks for attempting this again!

  • Katarina | March 7, 2013 2:41 PMReply

    Nice initiative! Just a short word since I saw the "The Help" being mentioned in the discussion. I haven't seen the film for years and won't be able expand much on it. I loved it because it was a beautiful and moving story, but also for what these early films made by African filmmakers did, which was acknowledging the existence of Africans in general and African women in particular (in this case) on the big screen (and consequently in the real world). Not as frightening or exotic "others" but as human beings with dreams, hopes, feelings, aims, purpose etc. "The Help" - a film in which black maids are merely extras in the telling of the white journalist's story - is doing the exact opposite. Another reflection I remember was that I was puzzled by the v/o in "French French".

  • J | March 6, 2013 9:48 PMReply

    I liked the film for what I thought it was saying, the main character's ending not really. It's a very relevant film for today still, which I didn't get through on my first attempt, so it stayed in the netflix queue. But after watching, I find it to be a very telling story of race, class, and aspirations of those in an opressed, lower economic society, to attain the status and oppotunities of those who would rather steal, and keep a certain people in what they would view, their place. The main character was looking to live a certain part of life she saw in the magazines, or what was being sold to her by the family who was going to give her a job taking care of their children. She saw that it wasn't in the plans for her at the end, and the view of the family, and those dreams she had died, where she made the decision she no longer wanted to live (which I didn't really like, and just my opinion of why she may did it), but wanted to die with her identity.

  • Nadia | March 6, 2013 6:43 PMReply

    If anyone knows anything about this I'm really interested in the answer. I heard that there was a sequel to Black Girl (Black Girl 2). Seriously, no joke. But I've never seen anything about that anywhere online. I first heard it while I was listening to a lecture on tape but I wish I could remember what the lecture was called. But if anyone has heard anything about this I'd really like to know.

  • Tambay | March 6, 2013 9:22 PM

    That isn't something that I've heard, or read anywhere. So it's news to me. But I'll investigate.

  • Felix C | March 6, 2013 1:47 PMReply

    I first saw this film at Berkeley Film Achives hosted by the late Dr Albert Johnson. I was amazed at the simplicity of this story telling by an African filmmaker. I have show this film to an audience of young and old who identify with lonelyness and contempt that the young maid has for her situation. The audience had no problem seeing the symbolism and exploxtation of the mask.

  • Ayo | March 6, 2013 12:25 PMReply

    I was looking for reviews of the film to find out what critics said about it and won't you know that Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs down. Really? Most critics gave it rave reviews but Ebert who you would normally expect to praise a movie like this gave it a negative review. LOL. It was an older review so I wonder if he's changed his mind about it now. If you want to read it here's the link: http://bit.ly/VFXeQl

  • Nadia | March 6, 2013 6:40 PM

    I don't really trust Ebert's reviews anyway. But he's changed his review on films before and I won't be surprised if he did for this one too.

  • keita | March 6, 2013 7:56 AMReply

    I am so happy that someone in America values the work of Ousmane Sembene.He cuold see in the future even in Ceddo or Thieroye.
    May his spirits guide and enlighten us

  • Justin W | March 6, 2013 12:36 AMReply

    I for one, really enjoyed the film. The ending was unexpected as I just expected her to just leave and go back home, not her killing herself. It speaks volumes as it shows that she rather end her life rather than go back home or continuing being a maid for the French family.

    One point I found interesting was in this movie, the main racial aggressor was a woman and the more "sympathetic"character in regards to race was a man. Usually with films dealing with race, men are always shown being the aggressor and women usually being in the background or neutral. Just a quick observation.

  • Justin W | March 6, 2013 11:57 AM

    I definitely see where you coming from and that's most likely why Sembane had the Madame as the main antagonist. It's funny because when I was typing out my last comment, I immediately thought of The Help as one example, but I struggled to think of anything else from the top of my head.

  • Nadia | March 6, 2013 1:06 AM

    Your last comment made me think of "The Help" because the set up is kind of the same, in the sense that there's the maid/mistress relationship at work, and the aggressors in "The Help" were the women for the most part, right. The men were always kind of in the background. But I think it speaks to gender recognition (for example, if the maid was a man, I think the husband would be the aggressor), and also the white woman would probably more intimidated and threatened by the black woman simply because she's also a woman, and she's an attractive black woman too. At least that's how I see it. Somebody else may say different.

  • Martine | March 5, 2013 11:04 PMReply

    To be honest, the first time I watched it I struggled to stick with it. But I stuck with it and gave it a couple of days to settle, read a little bit more about it, and then I watched it again. And the second time was less frustrating but it left me with many questions. One major one was what the the significance of the mask was which kept showing up until the very end when the little kid is chasing the white man with it. Also the ending was shocking. So is the filmmaker saying then that her only 2 choices were to either continue living that life in France, or killing herself, and killing herself was the more logical option?

  • Nadia | March 6, 2013 1:11 AM

    I agree with Justin's response. I thought the mask represents the lack of connection between Diouana and her employers. It hangs alone on a white wall, separated and isolated and out of context just like Diouana.

  • Justin W | March 6, 2013 1:04 AM

    Didn't realize part of my comment didn't get posted.

    I basically was saying in how in the dinner scene, the Madame and her company was looking and commenting on the mask as if was some sort of novelty, even though it holds a great deal of importance to Diouana. This, in my opinion, relates back to the theme of colonialism as it shows how Diouana lost her sense of culture to the Madame and how she now possesses it, reminiscent in how European countries colonized African countries and insert their own culture upon what was once the sole possession of the Africans.

    Sorry if it seems like I'm just ranting. When Im tired and don't have much slept, I tend to do that hahahahahaha

  • Justin W | March 6, 2013 12:44 AM

    I read the mask as a symbol of colonialism and imperialism that countries of Africa are way too familiar with. The mask is the identity of Diouana and what she represents and what happens to it? It is now in the possession of the white family and looked upon with low regard and interest, kind of like a novelty, highlighted by the scene in which the family had company.

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