Ousmane Sembène's La noire de...
The first image of Ousmane Sembène's Black Girl (1966, France/Senegal) is a highly relevant one: a large white cruise ship slices across a small French harbor, its horn bellowing to announce its arrival. The large Western ship is a loaded image in diasporic studies; it is a symbol of power and majesty, the mass movement of peoples, and control of geographic space by Western civilizations. It is also symbolic of the slavery and oppression that was shuttled around the world on such ships over the past millennium. This particular ship bears the black girl of the title, Diouana, who has arrived from her hometown of Dakar, Senegal. As she exits the ship, she wonders, “Will someone be there for me?” The spare title sequence – no music and white block lettering – announces the film title: La noire de.., or, The black girl of... For a great deal of time, I searched for an explanation as to why the English-language title was changed from the ambiguous original to the very blunt Black Girl, but I couldn't find the history behind it. Considering Sembène's difficulties with the producers of the film, the translation likely was, as is often the case, a dumbing down for Western audiences; or, perhaps just as possible, a stark exoticizing by those same producers. In speaking about the black diaspora, the original title poetically signals the confusion, separation, and dislocation that is a part of the movement of people from one place to another. Diouana, the “black girl,” is both ambiguously “of” someone and “of” someplace, but the exact people or places to which she belongs are left vague. This is invested with further complexity by the specifically anti-colonialist commentary which the film makes; that is, when her actual point of origin is transformed by colonial rule, down to the socially foundational elements of language and currency, which culture is it that Diouana most identifies with? She cannot know a Senegal without the now-ingrained French influence. Because I find it much more relevant to the topics in which Sembène had interest, in this close reading of the film, I will be using the original title from this point on when referring to the film.
Ousemane Sembène was possibly the most famous African filmmaker, and La noire de... is often credited as being the first Sub-Saharan African feature film, or at the very least the first to gain any kind of international recognition. Michael Atkinson notes that Sembène's “films are simple but never simplistic, lowbrow but unsensational, fastidiously realistic and yet unconcerned with sustaining illusion” (Atkinson 2001). All of these qualities can be applied to this, his first feature film. Shot mostly on hand-held 16mm, it is grainy and definitely low-budget, but it has a distinctly coordinated and arranged mise-en-scene, and the short running time has no fat on it. The film itself, made six years after Senegal acquired independence from France, is deeply antagonistic towards neocolonialism, but the production was nevertheless haunted by colonialist concession. Securing the budget for the film required that he relinquish his original plan of shooting in the Wolof language in favor of French in order to appease the French funders (Hennebelle 1969, 12). Language is a major concern of the film; Diouana is built as a character who does not speak French, but because of the influence of the money behind the film, Diouana even thinks her thoughts in French. Sembène saw cinema as a political tool, and when posed the question of whether the concession bothered him, he responded, as most activists would, that concessions must sometimes be made in order for action to take place (1969, 10).
Diouana has arrived in France to work for and live in the French home of a white couple for whom she had previously worked in Senegal (they are known simply as Madame and Monsieur). La noire de... is full of symbolic and metaphorical objects, but perhaps the most multifaceted is the African mask which we first see hanging in the middle of a spartan white wall as she enters the French home. This mask becomes symbolic of many things. It is contrasted, in this almost clinically white home, with Diouana, whose face it is suggested to resemble through Sembène's match-cutting. In a flashback, Diouana herself dons the same mask in Senegal as she enthusiastically announces news that she has been hired by a white family as their children's caretaker. She later gives the mask to the Madame as a gift, and the couple have a difficult time finding a place for it amongst the bevy of African masks in their Senegalese residence. Now in France, the mask, which was used as a plaything, tossed aside to the ground by the villagers in Senegal, occupies a museum-like position on the wall in the home. The mask – a representation of both the natural culture of the Senegalese people, as well as of modes of othering by the colonialists – continues to take on different meanings as the film progresses, which I will discuss later.
Sembène immediately gives us access to the internal monologue of Diouana, though it is a bleak and pessimistic monologue (spoken, as I mentioned above, in French). Diouana bemoans the cold and closed off French society. She notes to herself, “I don't know what French people are like. The doors are all shut, day and night!” In an attempt to conform to the French feminine popular culture to which she has been engendered through reading magazines such as "Elle" back in Senegal, she dons a Westernized wig to disguise her distinctly African hair. She also dresses in formal attire, with a nice dress and high-heeled shoes, to do her housework. For her, France is a place of haute couture, and she longs to be a part of it. She is, however, chastised by the Madame, who says, “You're not going to a party!” She is then given an apron to wear. We later learn that the dress she wears was a gift from the Madame in Senegal, just as the mask was a gift to the Madame from Diouana. But in France, Diouana has assumed a new role as maid, and the dress is no longer proper work attire. Diouana and her culture becomes something distinctly different once they are in France. Sheila Petty assists in understanding that this is partly a result of the European family being a “coopérant family,” or part of a “program that France created after Independence to assist in the development of Senegal's technical infrastructure,” not simply residents of Senegal.
In Senegal, Diouana was not hired to be a maid, but a governess. There, the Madame and Monsieur employed other Africans, and their guests were also African. But once the relocation to France takes place, there is a hardening or reaffirming of class and race roles. Like the mask, once removed from her original environment, Diouana now becomes the “artifact” which is to be put on display. At a dinner hosted by the Madame and Monsieur, one guest makes a particularly racist/colonialist comment regarding the Senegalese people: “Their independence has made them less natural.” I am reminded of the documentary Cannibal Tours (1988, Dennis O'Rourke), which showed the performative element of the post-colonial peoples of Papua New Guinea, who, after years of repression, opened themselves up to tourism and began inviting rich white Europeans to experience the “native peoples.” But the white German tourists were only interested in hearing about their legacy of cannibalism, which they had long-since discarded, and so the Papua New Guinea natives were forced to essentially perform the roles of their ancestors so that the civilized people could get a taste of the “savage.” By doing so, they could acquire currency that would allow them access to items of privilege in the Westernized world (such as “trousers”). Transposed from Senegal to France, Diouana is essentially asked to perform the same role, cooking authentic African food and silently “being” African while dreaming about purchasing French dresses. Marsha Landy comments that, “the economic and ideological structures of neocolonialism and commodity capitalism are, according to Sembène, the newest historical expression of capitalist and imperialist domination over the masses of African men and women” (Landy 1982, 24). That is to say, the winning of independence from colonial rule in their countries of origin (such as Senegal) does not erase the colonial influence. It now becomes apparent in the ways in which long-established systems of capitalism works to subvert the ability of the newly post-colonial peoples to engage meaningfully with the Westernized world. Landy also notes that the guests “talk about Senegal, but not to Diouana” (1982 25). While discussing Diouana's inability to write French, one of the guests notes that she must understand it “instinctively,” as if to say that the French influence on the Senegalese people is implicit enough that they have taken on the quality of innately understanding it as a means to adapt and thrive.
It is apparent, immediately, that La noire de... is a scathing indictment of neocolonialism, but it also indicts Diouana, and perhaps all of Senegal, in losing sight of the significance of their cultural heritage and looking towards France as a surrogate mother country. Diouana asks her suitor in Senegal, “Do you think France is prettier than this?” and, at another moment, is excited by the prospect of acquiring all the French attire that she has seen in magazines. She prances on the memorial dedicated to those who fought for Senegal's independence shouting, “France! France!” Sembène notes that an early version of the film had shots colorized in pink to show Diouana's initial point of view in France: “All was perfect. She had so much dreamed to go to France! Little by little, reality appeared to her, and she sunk into it. Thus I passed into the black and white” (Hennebelle 1969, 10). Her suitor is unswayed by her appraisal of France, and has a poster for the Independence of the Congo hanging in his bedroom. Ultimately, her image of France, like all the idealized images of “home,” (be they the places of original origin, or the place of re-location) leads to a crushing disappointment. After a period of refusing to work, she packs her bags and appears ready to leave, but... to where? Again, we return to the title of the film, The black girl of... She has cut ties with her family back home, and the monument to France she has built in her imagination has crumbled to the ground. In the bathroom, she cuts her throat.
In the final sequence of the film, the Monsieur travels to Senegal with Diouana's suitcase and mask in tow; there, he meets her mother, whom Diouana herself had forsaken once in France. Although appearing sincere, the Monsieur can ultimately can only interact with the Senegalese people through capitalist and patriarchal models, offering Diouana's mother a handful of francs as compensation for her death. Perhaps he means well, but the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed is so deeply-woven that communication is cut off at the point of currency. Again, the mask becomes a major image in the film. It is re-appropriated, for the last time, by a young relative of Diouana, who dons it to haunt the Monsieur like a specter, following him to the point that he crosses the bridge which connects the village to an unseen point of departure (or, to everywhere else that isn't “home”). Sembène offers his own insights into the mask: “For me, the mask is not a mystical symbol as it could have been to our previous ancestors, but a symbol of unity and identity and the recuperation of our culture” (Hennebelle 1969, 16-17). I would note that, to the frightened Monsieur, the film's embodiment of neocolonialism, the mask the child bears achieves a kind of primal African quality in the way it symbolizes everything the colonialists attempted to conquer and excise from the Mystical Native. He quickens his pace and flees this intimidating vestige of the past, this museum piece which is now haunted into movement. But the child removes the mask as the final credits roll, and the pain of loss is present on his face. He is the child who has taken an active stance in defending his people and their home from the influence of the outsider, and perhaps this is what Sembène hopes to see for the future of his people – an opposing image to the nomadic Diouana who was shuttled by a large white ship to a distant place, and died in the bathroom of her masters in Antibes.
Atkinson, Michael. "Film: Sembène's Universal Language: Politics as Style." The Village Voice 46, no. 14 (2001): 140-140. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1997834?accountid=14522.
Cannibal Tours. 1988. DVD. Directed by Dennis O'Rourke.
Hennebelle, Guy. 1969. “Ousmane Sembène: For Me, the Cinema Is an Instrument of Political Action, But...,” in Ousmane Sembene: interviews, ed. Annett Busch and Max Annas, pp. 7-23. Jackson: University of Mississippi.
Landy, Marsha. 1982. “Politics and style in Black Girl,” in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 23-25.
Petty, Sheila. 1996. “Towards a changing Africa: women's roles in the films of Ousmane Sembène,” in A Call to Action: The Films of Ousmane Sembène, ed. Sheila Perry, pp. 67-86. Westport, Conn: Praeger.
Created and Maintained by Stephen Russell, 2013