Ousmane Sembène was one of the greatest and most groundbreaking filmmakers who ever lived, as well as the most internationally renowned African director of the twentieth century—but his name deserves to be better known in the rest of the world. He made his feature debut in 1966 with the brilliant and stirring Black Girl. Sembène, who was also an acclaimed novelist in his native Senegal, transforms a deceptively simple plot—about a young Senegalese woman who moves to France to work for a wealthy white couple and finds that life in their small apartment becomes a prison, both figuratively and literally—into a complexly layered critique of the lingering colonialist mind-set of a supposedly postcolonial world. Featuring a moving central performance by M’Bissine Thérèse Diop, Black Girl is a harrowing human drama as well as a radical political statement—and one of the essential films of the 1960s.
Communication is key to any successful relationship. Whether you're at work, walking into a store, or with your significant other - if you're not actually communicating with one another, false perceptions are all that's left to fill the void. Filmmaker Ousmane Sembéne brilliantly explores the ramifications of a communication barrier with his debut 1966 film 'Black Girl.' Featuring a stirring performance by actress M'Bissine Thérese Diop, a seemingly simple story turns out to be a multilayered critique of the post-colonial world and is just as relevant today as it was in 1966.
In Dakar, there just isn't opportunities for people to thrive - unless you're white and French. For Diouana (M'Bissine Thérese Diop), everything is about to change. She just found a job as a nanny for a rich white Madame (Anne-Marie Jelnek) and her ambivalent husband (Robert Fontaine). When the pair brings Diouana back to the French Riviera for the season, Diouana was expecting a life more luxurious than the one she's lived her entire life. Reading Elle magazine, she envisions a life of pretty clothes, beautiful beaches, and seeing the world. The reality is far different. After her arrival in France, Diouana quickly learns that Madame didn't only want her to take care of her children, but expected her to cook and clean with little to no time for herself. As Diouana becomes more and more withdrawn, Madame behaves more and more cruel towards her. Before long Diouana begins to see her life as one of a prisoner, made to work for her food at her mistress' whims with nothing left to live for.
'Black Girl' is an impressive piece of filmmaking. While a product of late 1960s post-African colonialism, the film is very relevant and applicable to the world today. In it's simplest terms, 'Black Girl' is a conversation between employee and employer, immigrant and native resident where everyone is talking and no one is listening. On one side of the situation, the audience is allowed to view Diouana waste away as a prisoner of a lifestyle she once idolized. She thought this was a life of luxury but that sense of wealth and importance is built on the labor of someone else. Simple tasks like making breakfast, coffee, or serving a party lunch could easily be handled by Diouana's employers, but they would rather sit back and bathe in their perceived sense of superiority. When one of the guests attempts to kiss "the black Negress" against her will, it's seen by them as humorous rather than a horrific breach of personal space and respect.
While one could simply view 'Black Girl' on its face as the sad decline of a woman who dreamed of a better life, you would end up missing the tragedy of Madame. While M'Bissine Thérese Diop's Diouana lived in a literal prison, Anne-Marie Jelnek's Madame is living in a figurative prison. Presumably, her husband is the one who works, leaving her alone in a fruitless uninspired life. As the film progresses we see that all she has in life is this supposed superiority mindset over Diouana. Her husband doesn't care, he'd rather drink than deal with any situation within the home. That isn't to say the behaviors of Madame are excusable, they're not in any way, but it would be showing a lack of empathy to not acknowledge the fact that her life is also a prison - just with different walls.
For a breakout film for African director Ousmane Sembéne, 'Black Girl' is a tremendous film. Based on his novella, Sembéne paints a portrait of a sad world that is an unfortunate reality for many people. As Madame rails that Diouana "Is here to work!" it's a sickening realization that this human being forgot that the woman living in their home is there to live. She's not property, but they treat her like she belongs to them. Of course, she's there to work. She wants to work, but she also wants to have a life of her own that was better than the one she left behind in Dakar and that is being kept from her. As I said, 'Black Girl' is a conversation. People communicate without words leaving inaccurate perception to tell a false story of reality. It's a conversation we're having right now. With a dynamic political shift underway, it's important to remember that all of us need to keep talking to one another - otherwise we end up yelling into the storm. This film deals with a number of heavy themes and ideas and there is very little joy to be found, but it's also a work of great honesty and humanity - and absolutely worth celebrating.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Black Girl' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc. Housed in a clear case with a spine number of 852, the disc opens directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options. The disc also comes with a booklet containing stills from the film as well as an essay titled "Self Possessed" by Ashley Clark.
'Black Girl' arrives on Blu-ray with a beautiful pillar-boxed black and white 1.37:1 1080p transfer. Included in the booklet details that this film was mastered in 4k from the original camera negative elements and underwent some restoration efforts to remove scratches, speckling, as well as processing errors. The results are marvelous. The image retains a notable but not noisy grain presence that brings the image to life with vivid details. Skin and facial features, hair styling, clothing, the film's production design work all shine with this terrific transfer. With solid and beautifully inky black levels, the image displays a strong greyscale with appropriate shadow separation giving rise to a pleasing three-dimensional effect that is made even stronger by the claustrophobic setting of the French apartment building. As this is a fresh and recent restoration effort, minimal damage is apparent beyond a faded scratch or two, but those small blemishes are nothing to worry about as the rest of the transfer simply looks gorgeous on screen.
'Black Girl' comes with a strong French LPCM 1.0 mono audio mix with English subtitles. As detailed in the liner notes, this audio track was sourced from the original 35mm audio elements with additional restoration work performed by the Criterion Collection. While much of the track is fine, dialogue does tend to have a bit of a shrill quality to it and the film's piano score can sound particularly tinny like an old music recording played on an aged vinyl record. While hiss and pops aren't present and the track sounds free of any serious age-related issues, it doesn't exactly leap to life either. Much of the dialogue is from Diouana's internal monologues and M'Bissine Thérese Diop's voice tends to dominate most of the scenes. Atmospherics and background side effects are present but restrained giving the track a cold almost clinical feel as if we the audience are intruding into the life of someone else and passively observing. All around this is a perfectly solid audio mix that suits the nature of the film, but those expecting some sort of immersive surround experience won't find it here.
On Ousmane Sembéne: (HD 19:52) In this 2016 interview, Samba Gadjigo discusses Director Ousmane Sembéne and his relationship with challenging the dominant conversation of the era through his films. It's an interesting look at the Director's work in context of the social political climate of Africa throughout Sembéne's career.
M'Bissine Thérese Diop on 'Black Girl': (HD 12:32) In this 2016 interview, actress M'Bissine Thérese Diop talks about how she came to the film simply trying to find work and wasn't particularly interested in acting and how the Director saw her casting photo.
On Black Girl: (HD 21:37) Filmmaker and cultural theorist Manthia Diawara talks about the cultural significance of 'Black Girl' and 'Sembéne's strong belief in equality between men and women as well as all the races of the world.
Color Sequence: (HD 1:09) ) This color sequence when Diouana first arrives in France was originally intended to be included in the final cut of 'Black Girl' but was instead replaced with one that matches the rest of the Black and White tones of the film. While I understand the decision to not include it, I do feel that it is a striking bit of juxtaposition as if these scenes of the French Riviera furthered Diouana's fantasy of what she expected to encounter in France versus the reality.
Prix Jean Vigo: (SD 2:02) This is an archival television interview with director Ousmane Sembéne shortly after 'Black Girl' was released and awarded the Prix Jean Vigo.
'Borom Sarret' (1963): (HD 20:01) This short film was the directorial debut of Sembéne and won first prize at the 1963 Tours Film Festival.
On Borom Sarret: (HD 12:36) Filmmaker and cultural theorist Manthia Diawara offers up some insightful information and comments about the importance of this breakout film for director Ousmane Sembéne.
Sembéne The Making of African Cinema: (SD 1:00:38) This film by Manthia Diawara is an impressive piece of work in the context that much of Africa's cinema came from French filmmakers living there and how Sembéne was one of the first African filmmakers to emerge in that industry.
Trailer: (HD 1:21)
'Black Girl' is a hard film, but a relevant and necessary one. It's a word in an ongoing conversation about immigration and the relationship between employee and employer. While the film is steeped in the aftermath of French colonialism, the story and themes within this impressive breakout feature film from director Ousmane Sembéne are relevant to this day. The Criterion Collection brings this film to Blur-ray with style featuring a stellar A/V presentation as well as a host of informative and fascinating extra features including Sembéne's first award-winning short film. Simply put, this release is highly recommended.