‘Black Girl’
Ousmane Sembene
Stars: Mbissine Therese Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

Not every film can boast that they kickstarted an entire continental movement, and few that have are as deceptively modest as 1966’s “Black Girl.” Running just under an hour and set largely in an oppressively white-walled high-end apartment, the feature film debut of Senegalese poet and author Ousmane Sembene details the mental collapse of Diouana (Mbissine Therese Diop), a young woman from Dakar who finds herself in the sunny French resort town of Antibes. (Though that, too, is Dakar passing for seaside France.) Diouana thought she’d signed up to watch over a white couple’s children; she arrives to find the kids are away at school. Instead she’s expected to be their maid and cook, despite the fact that her culinary chops have never been more than rudimentary.

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Adapting his own novel, which was inspired by a real incident, Sembene paints a broad story of oppression that’s specific in its details. It’s a political film, astute about deep-seated racism that hadn’t magically disappeared after France lost control of Senegal only six years before. But its hero isn’t woke. Diouana is a Francophile who signed up for the job in part to make money, in part to spend that money on fancy clothes abroad then send photos back home to jealous friends. Instead she becomes a prisoner, confined to three rooms. When she cleans she insists on doing it in a fancy dress, pearls and high heels, until her perpetually snippy Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) orders her to put on an apron. To look fabulous, to her, is a political act, and the only way to assert her crumbling identity.

Her employers are unfailingly cruel, or in the case of the husband (Robert Fontaine) cruelly apathetic. In a Senses of Cinema piece, writer Rahul Hamid argues that was the point: Sembene was inverting tradition, which once saw Europeans as individuals and Africans as a group. Look closer and the villains are less one-note than they often seem. Before independence they too lived in Senegal, awash in money and privilege. Forced back to France, they’re slightly cash-strapped, despondent over their lost power. They take their foul moods out on Diouana, who’s forced to bottle up her pain, with only viewers as her silent, invisible confidants. She fills the narration track with her gripes and anguish, but there’s no one onscreen to hear her or empathize with her struggle. 

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“Black Girl” wasn’t the first movie made in sub-Saharan Africa, but it was the first to reach audiences far outside its home. Its success launched not only Sembene’s career as a major world cinema talent — he made 14 films up to his death in 2007, including his fiery swan song “Moolade,” about female genital mutilation — but inspired others on the continent to take up the camera. Africans had traditionally been seen as exoticized Others, but now they could assert their voices on the world stage, even as they sought to make films for their people back home.

It’s not clear if Sembene had seen the films of Satyajit Ray, India’s poet of social realism, or if he simply arrived at a similar (but different) approach himself. But like “Pather Panchali” and other Rays, “Black Girl” is driven by simple and quietly bold images against hypnotic music. It knows the power of a simple shot of Diouana cleaning up after a party or rolling her eyes as her employers show off her “real African cooking” to friends. And it knows it can fall back on star power. Diop never acted again, but in close-ups she has the intense grace of another one-film actress: Falconetti, the star of Carl Th. Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” She has the plainness of a first-timer but the depth of a master. So does “Black Girl.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge