Jeeze, what a way to follow up “Get Out” and “A Man Escaped.” The former of those two, in which a young Black man is lured to the home of a wealthy white couple under false pretenses with horrific results, is a commentary on the fraught racial politics of its time. The latter is a taut, almost parable-like film about the main character’s drive to become free from confinement at any cost.
Ousmane Sembène’s “Black Girl,” meanwhile, is a taut, almost parable-like film about a young Black Senegalese woman who is lured to the home of a wealthy white French couple under false pretenses, her growing sense of confinement and desperation to become free of it at any cost, and the horrific outcome that results — a commentary on the fraught racial politics of its day.
I know the Sight and Sound critics list isn’t grouped by theme, but in this case it may as well have been.
Running just under an hour, “Black Girl” is a punch to the gut. It tells the story of Diouana, a poor girl from Dakar who ends up in the employ of a French couple who lives part-time in the city. At first, she is given relatively free reign to tend to their children, taking them to school and around town to play. When she’s asked to move back to the south of France with the couple she accepts, envisioning free time spent in cosmopolitan boutiques and visiting the countryside. Instead, she’s treated as a live-in maid: cooking, cleaning, and enduring abuse from her mistress and degrading racist chatter from her guests. “For me, France is at the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, and my bedroom,” Diouana says in her voice-over narration (another similarity with “A Man Escaped”). “Where are the people who live in this country?”
Unknown and illiterate (she can’t even write to her ailing mother), Diouana is trapped. (“I’m their prisoner. I don’t know anyone here. No one in my family is here. That’s why I’m their slave.”) She falls into a deep depression and, well, it doesn’t end well.
Senegal declared its independence from colonial France in 1960, less than a decade from when “Black Girl” was released. (The movie itself is based on a 1962 short story, also by Sembène.) I’m not informed enough to comment intelligently on the dynamics of the country’s postcolonial transition to independence, but “Black Girl” — heralded as one of the first African-made feature films to gain an international audience — makes it clear that the wounds of French conquest and control didn’t heal overnight.