Black Girl (Sembene, 1966)

Three major filmmakers have passed away this year – Robert Altman, Edward Yang, and the master Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. Black Girl is his breakthrough film, made in 1966 and at only one hour long, it tells the story of Diouna, a young woman from Senegal sent to work in France as a maid. Black Girl shows the heartbreaking consequences of assumptions, made by both Diouna and her French employers. Diouna thinks she’ll be caring for their children, but when she arrives the house is void of youth. Instead, she’s asked to cook and clean for the adults, tedious chores that eventually drive her toward depression. Sembene’s French characters can’t understand why Diouna acts out, won’t realize they’re misleadings have helped cause this shift in personality. Sembene never judges though, rooting all of his action within a specific social milieu, one on the verge of dynamic shifts concerning race relations and communication. Black Girl must have been devastating for it’s time, since some forty years later it remains so, filtering desperation through the lenses of a woman deceived but also extremely naive about the consequences of her actions. After a tragic ending, Sembene’s final image of a small African boy holding a traditional mask in front of his face watching as Diouna’s master drives away in his car amidst a flurry of Africans, marks an unmasking of skin color in favor of human emotions, beautifully blurring the lines of black and white while basing it’s themes within a changing political and social context.

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