“Black Girl” (La Noire de…) is Ousmane Sembene’s first feature film. Made in 1966, it incorporates two of the elements that can be found in all of his subsequent work: deep empathy for his female characters and outrage over colonialism with its lingering impact in a period of formal national independence.
The main character is Diouana, an impoverished young woman who is lured into taking a slave-like housekeeping job in France by a couple she meets in Dakar. Played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop, a nonprofessional, Diouana is first seen going door to door in the wealthy white quarters looking for a job. Eventually she learns that there is a special location on a downtown curb where prospective employers can pick out a domestic. Anybody who is familiar with hiring practices for gardeners, construction workers and other day laborers in places like Los Angeles or Long Island will be struck by the similarity.
The French couple promise Diouana the world. If she returns to Antibes with them, she will have no other duties except looking after their three children. In her spare time, she will be able to go sightseeing on the French Riviera. In the opening scene, we see her walking down the gangplank to meet her boss. In view of what awaits her, she might as well have been transported there in chains.
As soon as she arrives at the couple’s apartment, they demand that she serve as cook and maid as well. They keep her working every minute of the day and punish her when she doesn’t meet their expectations in a kind of racist version of Cinderella.
In some ways, Diouna is a kind of trophy brought back from Africa, like the mounted head of a slain beast. When her employers invite over a bunch of friends for a lunch of Senegalese-style rice that she is instructed to whip together on a moment’s notice, one of the men plants an uninvited kiss on her cheek and announces “Now I know what it feels like to kiss a Black!”
Diouna initially shows her gratitude to the couple by presenting them with an authentic tribal mask that they display on their living-room wall. After she decides that she can no longer work for them, she takes the mask back. This simple act dramatizes the refusal of the postcolonial subject to cooperate with their own subjugation. After despair drives Diouna to take her life, the French husband returns to Senegal with her belongings, including the mask and several week’s wages, with the intention of presenting them to her mother. When a local schoolteacher (played by Ousmane Sembene) translates his words into Wolof, her mother refuses to accept the money and throws it on the ground. Despite Sembene’s Marxist convictions, this is frequently how his films end–on a note of passive resistance in the face of palpable defeat.
In an interview contained in “Dialogues with Critics and Writers,” Sembene explains the importance of “refusal” in his work:
“In a given situation, there will always be characters who will say no. It would not be accurate to say that a whole people accepted or refused, but I work with types of characters and I am sympathetic with those who refuse. Some things are simply not to be accepted. Human beings reach greatness only to the extent that they refuse these things and assume themselves. In fact, when a human being refuses, he/she takes charge of himself/herself. For what you reject in one place will be conquered elsewhere with your own strength.”