Criterion Prediction #41: Black Girl, by Alexander Miller
Title: Black Girl
Director: Ousmene Sembène
Cast: Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Toto Bissainthe, Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine, Momar na Sene, Bernard Delbard
Synopsis: Diouana (Diop) moves from Dakar, Senegal to work for a wealthy French family in Antibes. While Diouana reflects on her life in her native country, she can’t reconcile her current position, which is nothing short of homogenized slavery. Intended to work as a nanny, she is an indentured servant to a family led by a particularly cruel and unfeeling matriarch.
Critique: Historically, this is an important film from a director who is paramount in African cinema; Black Girl points to a severely distressing chapter in history without heavy-handed preachiness. Ousmene Sembène directs a succinct and potent film that maintains its stamina and strength over the course of fifty years and will undoubtedly continue to do so for more to follow. The culminating emotional resonance of this assertive story and its uncompromising finale reverberates so powerfully due to Sembène’s inability to ignore the toxic fallout that lingers in the wake of colonialism. Emphasized focus on an individual in the neo-realist mold aptly suits the scope of the narrative, Semebène is a director whose grasp never exceeds his reach.
Black Girl is a deeply felt and unsympathetic story. With a running time just shy of an hour (depending on which version you watch), it demonstrates the appalling indifference of French bourgeois mores and their countries intervention by the emotional alienation on both sides of the cultural divide. The French family who “employs” Diouana, are shown as unfeeling and cruel, and Diouana, whose limited external dialogue has lost so much of her cultural identity (along with her humanity in tow) sleepwalks through her days thinking of her life Dakar. The perceptive detachment brings a hushed sense of unease, but at times, the pacing is a tad too muted, resulting in a few narrative lags. Pacing aside Black Girl is a socially penetrating film that exercises a stirring political message.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Since Janus films has been screening a restored print of Black Girl with the collaborative effort of The World Cinema Project, it is pretty safe to say that Ousmane Sembène’s film is going to earn a spine number at some point.
Regarding Black Girl‘s inauguration into the collection, the two schools of thought are either; a stand-alone release that might be paired with another Sembène film, Borom Sarret (credited as the first African film) clocking in at 22 minutes. However, the more interesting theory is that Black Girl and Borom Sarret could be included in a second volume of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project along with some other movies that are under the Criterion/WCP moniker. Some titles of interest include Laws of the Border, a Turkish western, Sergei Parajanov’s indescribable The Color of Pomegranates, and an early Hou Hsiao-hsien film, The Boys From Fengkuei. Of course, this is all speculation, but the first volume of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project was one of Criterion’s most exciting announcements. As a final thought, people who take movies seriously are looking to be challenged with something new; and that is exactly why I loved the variety included in the World Cinema Project, and I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment.