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.