Movie review of ‘Black Girl’: Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 classic is restored and rereleased for its 50th anniversary. Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.
Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 first feature, “Black Girl,” returns to theaters for its 50th anniversary, newly and crisply restored and still startling. A classic of African cinema (it was the first sub-Saharan African film to reach international audiences), it’s a remarkable personal-is-political drama, set in barely postcolonial Senegal and France. A young African woman, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), leaves her home in Dakar to work as a maid for a white couple in southern France — and immediately regrets her decision. The job is menial and demeaning, the apartment a cell. She had dreamed of seeing a new country, but all she sees is a kitchen, a living room, a bed. “I’m a prisoner here,” she says, in voice-over.
Mostly silent with her employers, Diouana nonetheless speaks volumes through her expressive face and posture; not that they would notice. (Watch as she waits, quietly, for her male employer to open a car door for her; he doesn’t.) At home in Dakar, she walks easily in bare feet and loose, traditional garments; in France, painfully aware that she is “other,” she uncomfortably does housework in high heels and a tight dress. As Diouana serves a meal to guests, they talk about her as if she isn’t there. “Their independence has made them less natural,” observes one, of Africans. Her quiet rage grows, to a shocking, haunting ending. “Never will I be a slave,” she vows.
“Black Girl” screens with Sembène’s first short film, 1963’s “Borom Sarret” (“The Wagoner”), a 20-minute realistic drama about a desperately poor village cart driver. The Senegal-born filmmaker (1923-2007), also a novelist and poet, became one of the great 20th-century masters of cinema. (His final film, the feminist drama “Moolaadé,” had a U.S. release in 2004.) “I realized that with a book, especially in Africa where illiteracy is known to prevail, I could only touch a limited number of people,” he once said, of his transition from page to screen. “I became aware that film, on the contrary, was likely to reach broad masses.”
Movie Review ★★★★
‘Black Girl,’ with Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine, Momar Nar Sene. Written and directed by Ousmane Sembène. 59 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In French, with English subtitles. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.