This week Criterion Collection releases a crisp 4K digitally restored print of La Noire de… (English title: Black Girl), the first feature of influential director Ousmane Sembène. The picture, largely filmed in Sembène’s native Senegal, is narrated by the thoughts of Diouana, a young woman tricked into servitude. The lead is Mbissine Thérèse Diop, a dressmaker whose own wardrobe appears in the film, and voiced by Haitian singer/actress Toto Bissainthe.
As her ship reaches the shores of France, Diouana already questions her decision to traverse the Atlantic to work for a white European couple. Instead of caring for their children as she did in her home country, the Senegalese woman is put to work cleaning and cooking for the pair in their Antibes flat. The children are nowhere to be seen.
For a number of days, Diouana wears her stylish polka dot dress with low black heels and a chunky necklace in a small act of defiance as she sweeps the patterned floor. Her narration veers towards stream-of-consciousness, speaking to her anger and disappointment at her intractable situation.
Flashbacks show Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) first hiring Diouana at the maid’s corner of town, which inspires an act of gratitude on the younger woman’s part; Diouana gifts her employers with a traditional mask. She gives this bit of her culture and herself to the European couple and they set it to the side. The loss of her agency begins with this decision, and the consequences are tragic.
Given the early post-colonial setting of Sembène’s film (Senegal achieved independence 6 years before the 1966 release), it’s no coincidence the couple taking advantage of Diouana is white. According to film scholar Manthia Diawara in a supplemental interview included in this Criterion package, the director was inspired to write Black Girl after reading a newspaper story about the death of an unidentified woman of color. The resulting feature personalizes the plight of women who, in their desire to escape poverty or violent situations, suffer exploitation by others in positions of power.
There’s a lack of real communication between Diouana and the family that brought her to Europe. She doesn’t vocalize her hurt and feelings of betrayal, except to the viewer. Madame ridicules her and taunts her, and Diouana protests in her own quiet ways: sleeping in, locking herself in the bathroom, giving up meals, refusing to let Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) write untruths to her mother back home. Only with her ultimate act of defiance is she able to truly escape.
Sembène’s Black Girl compacts a memorable story into a short running time. The work is important not only for its place in African film history, but also for making a woman from a low-income background its primary focus — and giving her a voice.
Besides the excellently restored print, the Criterion Blu-ray of Black Girl includes a digital restoration of Sembène’s first film, the short Borom Sarret; interviews with film scholars Samba Gadjigo and Manthia Diawara, as well as actress Mbissine Thérèse Diop; the 1994 documentary about the Senegalese director, Sembène: The Making of African Cinema; and more..