In 1966, Senegalese novelist-turned-director Ousmane Sembène achieved international acclaim with his debut feature-length film, Black Girl. His urgent and intimate portrait of a young woman who leaves behind the struggles of her native Dakar for an equally challenging life as the maid for a French family on the Côte d’Azur immediately established him as one of the most important creative visionaries of world cinema.
Today, fifty years after it was first released, Black Girl begins a week-long run at BAMcinématek, screening a new Janus Films restoration of the film. To mark the occasion, New York Times film critic A. O. Scott took a closer look at the cinematic and societal legacy of the film and of Sembène, whom Scott calls a “lifelong critic of patriarchy.”
“The force of Mr. Sembène’s art—the sheer beauty that is the most striking feature of his early films—lies in his humanism. The task Black Girl sets itself is not just to note the facts of Diouana’s life but also to assert her visibility, to ensure that she is seen. Several years before the phrase ‘black is beautiful’ entered the lexicon of American racial politics, Black Girl insisted as much from its very opening frames. Ms. Diop, dressed in a white polka-dot dress and turban, moves through a world dominated by blinding, literal whiteness.”
In the decades following Black Girl, Sembène became a bold, unflinching observer—and critic—of life in his native Senegal, which was undergoing rapid technological and political transformation. Starting with Black Girl, Scott says, his films were imbued with an “empathy and . . . radicalism,” often depicting a culture struggling to come to terms with its traditions amid the transition to a postcolonial era. Sembène, who died in 2007, has long been considered the father of African cinema, and he had a profound influence on later filmmakers and artists giving voice to the continent’s long-overlooked stories.
In addition to Scott’s piece, you can read more glowing write-ups of Black Girl’s semicentennial revival in the Guardian, Vogue, and the New Yorker. And don’t miss the film’s run at BAM, now through next Tuesday.