The “Black Girl” speaks, 1966

20 March 2011

Coming to France from Senegal, she believed her white employers when they promised she’d be taking care of the kids. Instead, she’s become an all-purpose maid and cook — shall we say slave? The English title of 1966’s Black Girl only captures part of the original French, La Noire de… which means “the black girl of…” and Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène is quite serious in exploring what it means to be owned, or at least under the thumb of raced power. What does it mean to be in a strange nation, far from one’s family and anyone else Black, trapped in a house under the watchful, cranky eye of the same couple who misled you in bringing you here? And how do you protest?

Living in the south of France should have been heavenly, but Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) only catches a few glimpses of it. The kids aren’t even there yet, so she spends all her time trapped in that apartment where nothing she does is good enough. She doesn’t even have the right clothes for the job; all the fashionable dresses she brought with her — again, anticipating spending time in city parks with the children — are too fancy for mopping floors, and they just seem to make Mrs. Pouchet even angrier. Over time, Diouana has become quietly obstructionist, insisting on wearing her pumps when doing housework, while her mistress buys an insulting little maid’s apron. In other words, Black Girl is the most vivid expression of colonialism I’ve seen in film.

What the film captures most eloquently is the interplay between voice and silent resistance. How does a Black girl respond to a white mistress? In Diouana’s case, with surface impassivity and an angry inner monologue that we hear as voiceover. When Mrs. Pouchet calls her lazy and pronounces imperiously, “If you won’t work, you won’t eat!” Diouana thinks to herself, “If I don’t eat, I won’t work.” It’s especially bad when the Pouchets invite guests and pretend she does not speak French at all, but claim she “seems to understand intuitively,” like an animal. One man rises from the table and kisses Diouana, turning back to the room and announcing, “I never kissed a Black before! My first Black!” How does a Black girl respond except to feel ever more alienated? Is there any way out of this situation for a girl without money, without friends, and unable to speak except in her own thoughts?

It’s beautiful, harsh, eloquent — and only 56 minutes long in the streaming Netflix version (which makes me think I can use it in class!) I can’t think of a better way to get across these ideas about post-colonialism, power, and identity to my students. Senegal had been independent from France for only six years when Sembène made this film, so those themes were quite germane when it was made — and they’re no less pervasive now. For any of you who wonder whether the subaltern can speak — or how to analyze that question with your students — Black Girl is a partial answer. But I don’t mean to indicate that this film is academic or theoretical, because it’s not. I can hardly wait to see more of Sembène’s films and learn where he went from this, his début, to other explorations of identity and expression. In the meantime, the dreamlike/nightmarish qualities of this film haunt me.

8 Responses to “The “Black Girl” speaks, 1966”

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    Seems quite worthwhile. Based on your review and description, thanks for bringing this one into the light, I shall have a look at it. However, coming soon on my watch list (mid-week next week) is the Claire Denis 2009 film – White Material.

    Denis herself grew up in Burkina Faso, Somalia, Senegal, and Cameroon. This film is set in the present day in an unnamed African country. Isabelle Huppert stars as Maria, the French owner of a failing coffee plantation. The French are on their way out, and are all but gone. But Maria is staying. What’s on its way in is Civil War and Racial Conflict, and it is virtually around the corner or a few kliks away at anytime.

    Whereas Diouanna combines a surface impassivity with angry inner monologues, Huppert’s Maria apparently has the surface impassivity without the inner voice.

    Only Mafria’s situation is far more tenuous and imperiled than simply having an overbearing ‘boss’.


    • Didion Says:

      Fantastic! White Material is on my list and I see that it’ll be streaming on Netflix by mid-April. But maybe I’ll get the DVD copy so we can have paired posts about it. I saw Denis’ 35 Shots of Rhum just recently and found it very similar to what you describe here about the later film — I sometimes wasn’t sure what was going on with its characters. But it made me want to watch more of her films.

      And on the same subject (French directors wrestling with its colonial past), have you seen The Secret of the Grain, about Algerian immigrants in France? excellent.

      • Didion Says:

        oops — never mind about my getting White Material soon…the DVD isn’t out till mid-April either.

      • jmmnewaov2 Says:

        Make that a double Ooops. I won’t be reviewing it next week either. When I added it on Netflix, I just assumed it would be forthcoming at least after I adjusted my queue moving it to the top.

        But when I went to do that, I got the same message that you did, available on 4-12-11.

        Well, we can make that a date.


      • jmmnewaov2 Says:

        Just added The Secret Of the Grain to my queue.


  2. Senegalaise Says:

    Ironically, the film is simply called “The Black woman from…” One could even argue “female Black from”, but the title does not say “Black GIRL”.

    Unsurprisingly, it was the US that added the perjorative “girl” to this film, when the story is about a young woman.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, interesting! I read it as “The Black Woman of…” or “The Black Girl of…”, but you’re right that it’s ambiguous and can mean both.

      Don’t get furious that considering the subject matter of the film, I’d like to keep my finger on the side of the scales that says Sembene wanted to indicate that she came to feel owned, not free at all. But not only am I not a native speaker, I’ve struggled in recent years to remind myself of the rhythms of the language — so please let me know if I’ve got it all wrong.

  3. omalone1 Says:

    Gwiz, just found out about and saw this yesterday and even despite having to check subtitles, found it ot be a provocative viewing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: