Culture  Colonialism in a narrative nutshell

The revolutionary African cinema of Ousmane Sembène

In my last column, I responded to this year’s biggest and least politically correct blockbuster, Django Unchained, by recommending a few independent films that explore race more thoroughly and thoughtfully. Two of these films, Bush Mama and Killer of Sheep, were products of the LA Rebellion, a radical independent film movement that was heavily influenced by the post-colonial African cinema of the 1960s.

This week I’ll continue my exploration of radical films about race with one of these radical early African films, Black Girl. Made in 1966, the film is not only one of the earliest movies, African or otherwise, with a black female protagonist, but also the first feature by director Ousmane Sembène, often cited as the father of African film.

Even before Sembène earned such high praise, he lived a remarkable life of political resistance. Born in rural Senegal in 1923, Sembène fought in World War II, stowed away to France, joined the French Communist Party, and helped lead a strike to impede the shipment of weapons for the French war in Vietnam, all before he ever picked up a camera. Sembène wrote two socialist novels before he switched mediums, hoping that through film, his social critique could reach a larger audience. Luckily for him, his second novel earned him an invitation to Moscow, where he would have an opportunity to study filmmaking before finally returning to Senegal in 1960.

Previous to the 1960s, the only films made about Africa were Western, and shot black Africans through the lens of either paternalisim or blatantly malign racism. When anti-colonial films were made, such as René Vauthier’s Afrique 50, or Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ Les Statues Meurent Aussi, they were banned in France and its colonies. It was only with the liberation of many African nations around 1960 that Africans began their own cinematic tradition. As Sembène explained it, “For us, African filmmakers, it was then necessary to become political, to become involved in a struggle against all the ills of man’s cupidity, envy, individualism, the nouveau-riche mentality, and all the things we have inherited from the colonial and neo-colonial systems.”

Black Girl, which Sembène adapted from one of his short stories, tells the story of Diouana, a Senegalese domestic worker whose white French employers go on vacation to France and take her with them. Taking place entirely in Diouana’s boss’ claustrophobic Antibes apartment, flashbacks show Diouana’s journey from the slums of Dakar to the maid market, a square where black women wait for white women to hire them, an image strongly resembling a slave auction. In Dakar, where Diouana’s employers were foreigners, they treated her with kindness and generosity, employing her only to mind the children. In their native France, however, to Diouana’s surprise, the couple reduces her to a maid. There, the couple and their French friends exploit, humiliate, and objectify the illiterate Diouana until her final act of resistance and self-expression.

Giving Diouana a voice-over that accounts for most of the dialogue, the film resists racist portrayals of Africans as purely physical, non-cerebral beings by constantly foregrounding her interiority. Further, it acts as a devastating indictment of colonial racism and classist oppression not only on an interpersonal level but also on an international level. As Diouana’s total dependence on her employers in France results in her exploitation, Sembène communicates more broadly that Senegal, though liberated, is still dependent on, and therefore at the mercy of France.

Sembène’s use of the medium of film to reach a larger audience paid off. Black Girl won the Prix Jean Vigo, a prestigious French award which, until 1966, had only ever been awarded to white directors. The film quickly became the first African film to garner international acclaim, immediately drawing attention to African cinema and its fiery critique of colonialism and global capitalism. Today, you can even find it on Netflix.

Like Bush Mama and Killer of Sheep, the American films it would help spawn, Black Girl is a film about exploitation and oppression from the perspective of the exploited and oppressed, a necessary alternative to mainstream treatments of race, gender, and colonialism from Django Unchained to Lincoln to Zero Dark 30.