Supplemental Readings: Black Girl

There’s no better way to beat the late summer heat than here at the Brattle. And beginning August 12th, we’ll be screening our brand new restoration of Ousmane Sembene’s BLACK GIRL, the 1966 African classic, in honor of its 50th anniversary. Often said to be the first real African film by an African director, BLACK GIRL is rich in its characters and imagery, and we’ve compiled a list of supplemental readings to get you ready for the film—whether it be a rewatch or if you’re seeing the radical film for the very first time. 

Senses of Cinema’s Rahul Hamid speaks of the protagonist, in BLACK GIRL, a young black woman named Diouana’s excitement upon her arrival in France. Having been the nanny to a white couple for quite some time in Africa, she expects France to be as glamorous as she’s heard, and for her work to remain the same as before. However her reality becomes a “dreary routine of cleaning and cooking in their small apartment, and she is driven to desperation” when she feels utterly unappreciated and trapped in the world of a couple who try to reclaim the African culture they once lived in, while forgetting Diouana’s rights as a human being. Hamid, a professor at New York University, discusses in depth the clashes between nanny and woman of the house, and how a seemingly simple African mask used as a prop in the film, is actually, eventually, “a threatening symbol of a free Africa”.

Before his death in 2007, Ousmane Sembene remarked, “When women progress, society progresses”. Though spoken late in his career, this statement could be said to echo throughout all of his films, including BLACK GIRL. The New York Times Critic’s Notebook discusses Sembene’s legacy, his feminism, and BLACK GIRL—“an objectively grim, realistic story with poetry and longing”. Critic A. O Scott argues the beauty of the film “lies in its humanism”, with Diouana’s struggle being an “African migrant in France, a woman in a male-dominated society and, perhaps above all, an exploited worker in a brutal, global cash economy”. This article by the NYT looks at the bigger picture, and explains to its audience why BLACK GIRL is entirely unique and universal, even fifty years after its creation.

Writer Livia Bloom interviewed BLACK GIRL’s main actress, Mbissine Thérèse Diop, in 2015, and her account of their meeting is on FilmComment’s website. The actress reveals Sembene found her through a photograph, and that as a seamstress by trade (and for the rest of her life—BLACK GIRL was her first and last film before appearing in a documentary about Sembene just last year), Diop sewed all of her costumes worn in the film, but one. Bloom’s interview is the only interview with the film’s star on record, and her insight into Diouana’s struggle and legacy, and behind the scenes information will enhance any audience member’s viewing of the film.

Tribeca Film’s Matthew Eng discusses Ousmane Sembene’s talented eye as director, agreeing with his nickname as the “Father of African Film”. In his discussion of BLACK GIRL, Eng argues that the director should be as famous as De Sica, Bertolucci, Fellini, and Kurosawa, and that BLACK GIRL “has all the skillful stylistic simplicity of your typical piece of neorealism but also packs a sharper bite”, separating it from the rest of existential classics. The author also discusses Sembene’s first creation, a short film from 1963 called BOROM SARRET, and names both films as proof of “Sembene’s incomparable talents, as well as an inviting entryway into the multitudinous national cinema that this rare genius helped foster”.

Using quotations from the film while discussing the artistic choices in BLACK GIRL, Vogue highlights why Sembene’s film managed to take a story that “could hardly seem simpler”, and turned it into the international masterpiece it is today. With the original French title being “La Noire de…” meaning the “Black Girl of…”, the film deals with major themes of race, identity, clashing cultures, and what it means to belong to someone, or to be owned. Author John Powers also mentions the oft-forgotten fact that BLACK GIRL was based on a short story that Semebene himself wrote, and that the artist eventually “decided to become a filmmaker because so many of his countrymen couldn’t read. To reach them, he thought he needed to make movies”. This article proves that the director’s desire to change the audience and world around him is what makes the film still so powerful today.

Lauren Backus Written by: