Monday, February 26, 2018

2018 Blind Spot Series: Black Girl

Written and directed by Ousmane Sembene that is based on his own novella, La Noire de… (Black Girl) is the story of a woman from Senegal who travels to France where her work as a maid for a wealthy white family that becomes not what she thought it would be. The film is a study of alienation and repression from the eyes of a woman who arrives into a world that sees anyone from Africa as beneath them as she also copes with her identity. Starring M’Bissine Therese Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine, and Momar Nar Sene. La Noire de… is a ravishing yet eerie film from Ousmane Sembene.

The film follows a young woman from Senegal who meets a Frenchwoman in the city of Dakar where she is hired to be their maid and go to France hoping to make some good money and live a decent life. Instead, she finds herself having to serve the rich French couple and endure all kinds of verbal abuse from the Frenchwoman as it would become overwhelming as she thinks about her old life in Senegal. Ousmane Sembene’s screenplay has a back-and-forth narrative that follows the protagonist of Gomis Diouana (M’Bissine Therese Diop) who copes with her situation as she thinks about how she got hired and her old life in her home village near Dakar. Much of the film is told from Diouana’s perspective with a lot of voice-over narration (provided by Toto Bissainthe) where her job was to watch over the children of this couple but instead has to serve them where it’s very demanding. Especially as she’s never given much time to herself nor have the chance to explore her surroundings as she’s heard so many great things about France.

Sembene’s direction is intoxicating in capturing life in 1960s Senegal as well as the sense of alienation Diouana endures in the French seaside town of Antibes. Shot on location in Dakar and Antibes, Sembene would show two different worlds that would play into this conflict that Diouana would endure throughout the film. Sembene would use a lot of wide shots of the locations but much of his compositions are set in the close-ups and medium shots to play into Diouana’s sense of alienation and her surroundings. Notably in a scene where Diouana is serving guests of the French couple as Diouana is hearing what her employers are saying about her. There is also a key scene where Diouana gets a letter from her mother as the narration has Diouana believing that the letter is false as it just adds to this sense of repression as well as a mental sense of domination from the perspective of her employers.

Sembene’s direction has a looseness in the way Diouana’s life in Dakar is as she has a boyfriend (Momar Nar Sene) while being very playful and happy. Even as her job as a nanny of sorts in Dakar for the same couple where she watches the kids is actually filled with some joy. When Sembene is in Antibes, it has a different feel where Diouana is completely all by herself in a world that is dominated by white people who are rich and are often absorbed into their own bullshit. Even as a guest would want to kiss her against her will as it just adds to this sense of smugness from the people she’s serving as she knows what they’re talking about as it relates to African colonialism and how they view their contributions to Africa. It just play into Diouana’s own repression where Sembene would create a powerful conclusion followed by a return to Dakar that just shows how the world views Africa and their own ignorance about what they’re really doing. Overall, Sembene crafts a rapturous and haunting film about a young woman’s journey to France from Senegal and the oppression she would endure.

Cinematographer Christian Lacoste does brilliant work with the film’s black-and-white cinematography as it play into the vibrancy of the exteriors in Dakar as well as the beauty of Antibes and the true attention to detail into how people look such as the locals in Dakar as well as Diouana’s own interaction with her employers. Editor Andrew Gaudier does amazing work with the editing as it is largely straightforward in its approach to the drama while it would have some jump-cuts to play into some of the looser elements in the film. The film’s soundtrack mainly feature an array of traditional African music as well as contemporary music from France to play into the different world that Diouana is in.

The film’s superb cast include some notable small roles from Raymond and Suzanne Lemery as a couple of guests of the French couple, Ibrahima Boy as a young boy with a mask, Nicole Donati and Bernard Delbard as a couple of guests at a dinner party, and Momar Nar Sene as Diouana’s boyfriend whom she meets when trying to find a job and deals with Europe’s influence in Senegal. Robert Fontaine and Anne-Marie Jelinek are excellent as the French couple who hire Diouana with Fontaine as the indifferent husband who would pick Diouana up on her arrival while Jelinek is the more aggressive and abusive madam who is so full of herself. Finally, there’s M’Bissine Therese Diop in a phenomenal performance as Gomis Diouana as a young woman from Senegal whose dream to go to France becomes a nightmare as she endures cruelty, indifference, and doubt where it’s a restrained yet evocative performance that plays into a woman dealing with a situation and make sense of what she’s enduring.

The 2017 Region 1/Region 2-disc DVD/1-disc Blu-Ray from the Criteron Collection presents the film in a new 4K digital film restoration by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project with the aid of Cineteca di Bologna and with the blessing of Sembene’s son Alain. The film is presented in black-and-white with Dolby Digital mono (uncompressed in its Blu-Ray release) in French with new English subtitle translation. The DVD/Blu-Ray set features an abundance of special features that relates to the film as well as its creator Ousmane Sembene. In the first disc of the DVD, there’s the film’s trailer for its 2016 restoration edition as well as a twelve-and-a-half minute interview with actress M’Bissine Therese Diop conducted in 2016 as the actress talks about her experience working with Sembene as well as the themes on the film. She also revealed that many of the things seen in the film are actually true in the way Europeans treat Africans as she had seen it up close while she talked about her own experiences in the film including her collaboration with Sembene whom she knew was someone that had ideas of what he wanted to do while Robert Fontaine, who played her employer, was Diop’s acting coach that she knew for a while and was one of the few Europeans who opposed France’s rule on Africa. Diop also talked about her character and the ideas she brought to the film as it added to realistic elements of the film which was something a few of the politicians in Senegal at the time were not ready for.

The 22-minute interview with filmmaker/scholar Manthia Diawara about the film and Sembene has Diawara talk about the film’s importance in cinema as well as its place for African cinema. Diawara talks about the fact that the film is based on a true story that Sembene learned about when he was in France and turned it into a novella. Diawara talks about what was happening in Senegal at the time as the country had just become independent yet its president at the time was still doing deals with France that made some uneasy. Diawara also talks about the film’s unexpected success and its impact on African-American cinema and African cinema though there were some that hoped Sembene would stay in Senegal but the filmmaker refused to be pigeonholed in order to tell the stories he wanted to do which added more weight to his legend.

A one-minute alternate color sequence provided by the BFI in their own restoration of the film is really the driving scene in Antibes where it does have a beautiful look as it was a sequence shot originally in color before going into black-and-white for its final version. The two-minute excerpt of the March 1966 broadcast of the JT de 20h is an interview with Sembene who talks about the film as well as getting the Prix Jean Vigo which surprised him as he told the interview that he was about to leave until his landlady told him.

The second disc of the DVD features a 1994 one-hour documentary film entitled Sembene: The Making of African Cinema by Manthia Diawara and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The film follows Sembene as he talks about his views on Africa and African cinema as well as the need for the continent and its countries to create its own identity after years of being colonized by other countries for so many years. Talking to various film students as well as filmmaker John Singleton, Sembene would also talk about some of the dark historical context of the country and its struggle for independence as a lot of films had to do with the search for an identity. Plus, he never uses professional actors while often telling stories about those who aren’t part of traditional society which has upset some of the African audiences from upper-middle class backgrounds. It’s a compelling documentary that showcases the films Sembene made up till 1994 as well as his views of what Africa could be and what they need to do to achieve that.

The 20-minute interview with scholar Samba Gadjigo has him talking about Sembene and his contribution to cinema. Notably as he was someone that lived in France where he was a member of the country’s communist party as he learned to read and write as he had been unable to as a child. He also learned about what was happening in Africa and why there hasn’t been any stories told about them. Despite the success of his films early in his career, Gadjigo revealed that there weren’t a lot of cinemas in Senegal and other countries in Africa as many of Sembene’s films were seen in Europe and in America. Gadjigo also talked about Sembene’s body of work as it revealed a lot of the stories he told and the common themes they had about oppression and the need to find one’s voice as many of films had been banned in Senegal, France, and other parts of Africa because of its political commentaries. Nevertheless, those who did work with Sembene in the 1960s would become filmmakers themselves and helped create a movement for African cinema and eventually have their films seen by Africans.

The 20 minute short film Borom sarret (The Wagoner) is Sembene’s debut film as it is about a day in the life of a cart driver where a man deals with his work as he tries to do his job. Yet, he would deal with customers who don’t pay him as he tries to continue to work as it would be trying as well as endure a sense of alienation in his surroundings where he drives a customer to the city. It’s a tremendous short film that explore the early years of Senegal’s independence and some of its drawbacks for those who live in rural areas as well as the sense of oppression they endure when they arrive in the city. The thirteen-minute interview with filmmaker/scholar Manthia Diawara on the short has him talking about the short film’s importance to African cinema as well as Sembene’s political commentary on what he wanted to say. Even as the short would have an impact on some of the later films he did as it relates to struggle of working-class Senegalese.

The DVD/Blu-ray set also include an essay from film critic Ashley Clark entitled Black Girl: Self Possessed. The essay doesn’t just talk about the film but also Sembene and how the film was made knowing that the novella he wrote wouldn’t be enough to reach the people in him country since many Senegalese at the time were illiterate. The film was released six years after the country had declared its independence from France but were still mired in the stench that was left from colonialism as it forced Sembene to make films about those that weren’t prospering from this new independence. Clark would also talk about many of the film’s themes of postcolonial prejudice and the sense of superiority Europeans had towards Africans which only added to their ignorance of what they did to them for so many years and their treatment of Diouana in the film. Its ending relates to the Europeans facing the sins they’ve created as it would haunt them from the people they’ve tried to rule over who will create something hopeful for their continent as it’s a must-read for anyone interested in African cinema.

Le Noire de… is a tremendous film from Ousmane Sembene. Featuring its great cast, gorgeous visuals, haunting music, and themes on identity and cruelty during the post-colonial period of Senegal in France. It’s a film that showcases a woman dealing with prejudice and superiority as she forces to face the reality of who she is and the need to reclaim it. In the end, Le Noire de… is a phenomenal film from Ousmane Sembene.

Ousmane Sembene: MandabiEmitai – (Xala) – Ceddo – (Camp de Thiaroye) – (Guelwaar) – (Faat Kine) – (Moolaade)

© thevoid99 2018


Brittani Burnham said...

I've never heard of this film, but it sounds interesting. It sounds like you get your moneys worth with that DVD too, that's a lot of extras.

Sonia Cerca said...

I've never heard of this but it sounds so interesting and good! I'll definitely check it out if I have the chance.

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-It was released from Criterion last year as if you have access to Filmstruck. I would totally recommend seeing it as I feel that we need to see more films from Africa.

@Sonia-If you have access to the Criterion Collection and Filmstuck, seek it out. I'm just trying to spread the word on African cinema.