This article appears in our 2017 Fall issue, Facts. Subscribe today!
The Criterion Collection recently released a newly restored and remastered version of Ousmane Sembène’s first feature, Black Girl (La Noire de…). Fifty-one years after its initial release, this seminal film remains hauntingly relevant: Black Girl captures both a specific moment—postindependence Senegal—while unpacking concerns around agency, cultural exchange, feminized labor, and exploitation. The story was inspired by a brief article in a French newspaper about an African maid who was only referred to as “la noire de.” Black Girl imagines a subjectivity where one had been denied. The English title flattens the ambiguities of the original French, which means “The black girl from” and “The black girl of,” signifying both roots and possession. How do you belong to yourself in a world that depends on your erasure and objectification?
Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) is a young Senegalese woman who travels to France to work as a nanny for her rich, white employers, known only as Monsieur and Madame. She is ecstatic, imagining a life of cosmopolitan adventure and ease, but is met with confinement and emotional abuse. The kids are not present. She cooks, cleans, and rarely leaves the apartment. Her employers offer no compensation and parade her like a spectacle in front of guests. To Diouana, France becomes the bare white walls of the kitchen and dining room and the unreachable darkness beyond the windows.
Moreover, she must silently absorb all of Madame’s raging and petty frustrations. Diouana’s acts of self-preservation are willfully misinterpreted as proof of laziness, ineptitude, or aggression. In one scene, Madame snaps at Diouana’s insistence on wearing colorful dresses and heels—she is their maid, nothing else. Diouana is expected to deny her complexities in order to appease Madame’s warped views about Blackness and servitude; its a reversal of Heart of Darkness wherein barbarity is found within the domestic sphere.
Diouana is a strikingly poetic character whose plight echoes other nuanced figures across Afro-diasporic writing, from Myriam Warner-Vieyra to Gayl Jones to Assia Djebar. Her journey also recalls numerous (forced, voluntary) migrations, tracing parallels to the transatlantic slave trade and the resulting waves of diasporas to follow. The film resonates deeply with our own contemporary moment, mirroring U.S. treatment of groups marked as “alien” or “illegal.” Black Girl reiterates that under the masks of civility and liberation, the ugly phantoms of colonialism still wreak havoc under new guises.