If Africans do not tell their own stories, Africa will soon disappear. —Ousmane Sembène
Long before his death in 2007 at the age of eighty-four, Ousmane Sembène was widely recognized as the father of African cinema. Yet he worked in film for less than half of his life. At forty-three, he wrote and directed his first feature film: Black Girl (1966), a brisk, memorably pointed tale based on one of his own short stories. It charts the fortunes of an optimistic young Senegalese woman, Diouana—played by the charismatic and beautiful nonprofessional actor M’Bissine Thérèse Diop, a seamstress who made her own costumes for the film—who leaves her nation’s capital, Dakar, to work for a bourgeois white family in a small town on the picturesque French Riviera. It’s not long before Diouana’s mind and spirit disintegrate in response to the crushing drudgery of her work and the callous neglect of her employers.
This elegantly stark dramatization of postcolonial pain was the first feature made in Africa by a sub-Saharan African to attract international notice. And its powerful social and political undercurrents can be illuminated by a look at the fascinating route Sembène, a talented polymath, took to filmmaking—a circuitous tale that would, in the proper hands, make a thrilling biopic in its own right.
From its earliest stages, Sembène’s life was indelibly shaped by colonialism. The son of a fisherman, he was born a French citizen in 1923, in the Casamance region of Senegal, a nation that had been under French rule since the late 1800s. Showing a rebellious streak that would later manifest itself in his art, he was reportedly expelled from a colonial school for striking a French teacher. Having been raised by his maternal grandmother, he was sent as a young adult to his father’s family in Dakar, where he worked various odd jobs before being drafted into the Senegalese Tirailleurs, a corps of the French Army, in 1944. After a period of service with the Free French Forces in World War II, he returned to Senegal, where he participated in a major strike by workers on the Dakar-Niger railway in 1947. Later that year, he stowed away to France, where he toiled in a Paris Citroën factory before settling in Marseille to work on the docks. Then, in 1951, he suffered a work-related accident that resulted in several crushed vertebrae.
During his convalescence, Sembène gorged on the socialist writings of American authors like Jack London (The Iron Heel) and Richard Wright (Native Son) and, following his recovery, spent his free time roaming Marseille’s public libraries and museums. He immersed himself in political science and Marxist ideology, eventually rising to the status of the intellectual aristocracy of the labor movement, according to his biographer Samba Gadjigo. Sembène also became a prolific, self-taught novelist, drawing on his own experiences for subject matter—one of his best-received books, God’s Bits of Wood (1960), is based on the Dakar-Niger railway strike. Hinting at the artist’s future foregrounding of female characters in films such as Black Girl, the novel is notable for its portrayal of women as crucial, active agents in the struggle for liberation.
When Senegal gained independence from France in 1960, Sembène returned home and decided film was the best storytelling tool he had at his disposal for reaching his compatriots, a mostly rural population among whom literacy was low. It was through visual language, he concluded, that he would be most able to fulfill his role as a griot in the West African tradition—a man of learning and common sense who is the historian, living memory, raconteur, and conscience of his people. (Gadjigo has argued that Sembène came to filmmaking as a last resort, viewing it as a necessary public service.) In 1961, he was offered a scholarship to attend the Gorky Film Studio in Moscow, where he studied for a year under the Ukrainian filmmaker Mark Donskoy, before returning to Dakar to embark on his new endeavor.
At this point, the weight of history was against Sembène’s aspiration to make films in Africa. Because of an oppressive 1934 ruling called Le Décret Laval (named after the Vichy prime minister later executed for Nazi collaboration), Africans in French colonies had for decades been effectively banned from filming in their own nations, leaving the representation of African people there to ethnographers who, even when well-intentioned, risked exoticizing and dehumanizing their subjects. (Sembène is reported to have said to the famed ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch in 1965: “What I hold against you . . . is that you look at us as if we were insects.”) As a result, there was no production infrastructure in place in francophone Africa, or much technical knowledge about filmmaking. But with the advent of independence in 1960, the ban was lifted and a newly supportive attitude on the part of the French government toward African filmmaking began to develop, motivated in part by persuasive efforts by African film students and French filmmakers, including Rouch. In 1963, shortly after Sembène’s return to Senegal, France set up a cinema bureau within its Ministry of Cooperation, which had been created with the express purpose of providing development assistance and technical expertise to the nation’s former colonies in Africa.
Sembène set to work, making two short films in quick succession. Like the forthcoming Black Girl, both featured sparklingly harsh monochrome visuals and a clean, direct storytelling style, and depicted working-class Senegalese people struggling against bleak social conditions and human foibles—their own and others’. Borom sarret (1963) depicts the travails of a poor, luckless wagon driver exploited by almost everyone he meets; at the film’s end, he mourns the loss of his military medal, a prized decoration suggesting that he, like many Senegalese natives (including Sembène), was drafted into the French military, then left to fend for himself. The pernicious social impact of French colonialism also underpins Niaye (1964), in which a young woman’s pregnancy scandalizes her community. Though a visiting worker is accused of impregnating her, the father of the young woman’s baby is in fact her own father—a disgrace the community scrambles to hide from the colonial administration.
Despite the new conditions that allowed African filmmakers to be more productive, Sembène’s inveterate critical streak did not aid his cause. His screenplay for Black Girl, with its resolutely noncelebratory take on postindependence life for the Senegalese, was the only one ever rejected for production funding by the then head of the Ministry of Cooperation’s Cinema Bureau—the key funding body for francophone African cinema—on the basis of subject matter alone. Accordingly, Sembène invented the term mégotage (a riff on montage, translating roughly to “cigarette-butt cinema”) to describe the lengths to which African filmmakers had to go to scrape together budgets.
Black Girl, then, can be understood as the product of a lifetime of negotiating challenging power relations. Sembène subsumes this wellspring of complexity into the radiant, statuesque form of his central character, Diouana, who is first seen lonely and shaken at the docks, having arrived in France from Senegal on a boat whose horn blares like a demonic warning clarion against viciously whipping winds. The film’s first words—articulated in Diouana’s plaintive voice-over—are: “Has anyone come for me?” A point-of-view shot takes us into her head space as she watches the hustle and bustle with a dispassionate gaze; it’s an unspectacular yet thrilling moment, fully immersing us in the world of an African character. It’s clear, immediately: this is her story. (It’s worth pointing out that funding constraints forced Sembène to dub Diouana’s minimal yet poetic interior monologue in French, a compromise that has the powerful dramatic effect of reflecting the psychic weight of colonialism: she must craft her inner self in a language she cannot speak.)
As it happens, someone has come for her: her employer, Monsieur (Robert Fontaine), who picks her up without ceremony and drives her through the perky, florid seaside scenery to her destination. “Lovely country, France,” he mutters—it can’t help but sound ominous. The drive is accompanied by insistent, insufferably jaunty piano music—in effect, it’s not unlike Djibril Diop Mambéty’s deliberately grating use of Josephine Baker’s “Paris, Paris” in Touki bouki (1973), another classic Senegalese film about postcolonial purgatory. Throughout, Sembène flips between this Western plink-plonk and lilting, guitar-based African music, emphasizing the black-and-white contrast between the characters’ races and, in many cases, costumes.
In her new home, Diouana is first treated with brusque tolerance, which soon gives way to hostility from the matriarch (Anne-Marie Jelinek) and indifference from her husband, an ostensibly pleasant but palpably useless man who fails to support Diouana as she slides into depression. Having been promised work looking after her hosts’ three children, Diouana is instead restricted to a routine of grinding chores, and subjected to overt racism in dinner party scenes set around her employers’ dining table; these are horrifying due to their blank understatement. In one of the film’s most upsetting moments, Sembène’s camera remains clinically distant as a corpulent, lascivious guest stares at Diouana’s behind, then is unable to restrain himself from planting a nonconsensual kiss on her frozen face. Meanwhile, other guests—clearly well-to-do “liberals,” by the way—speak patronizingly of Africans in Diouana’s presence (“With independence, the natives have lost a natural quality”).
Black Girl is especially sharp on the corrupted social contracts of postcolonial life, and Sembène roots these observations most effectively in the relationship between Diouana and Jelinek’s Madame. In a manner oddly reminiscent of the manipulations of Scottie (James Stewart) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Madame seems hell-bent on controlling Diouana in order to bolster her own flagging sense of superiority. “You’re not going to a party,” she tells Diouana, giving her an apron to cover her effervescent polka-dot dress and high heels. The pair’s poisonous dynamic may remind contemporary viewers of the one that brews in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) between the jealous slave owner’s wife Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) and the horrifically abused slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). One solitary, charged glance between Diouana and the husband, midway through the film, is enough to suggest that a similar psychosexual panic has taken root in the wife’s mind, precipitating her increasingly heinous behavior. It is notable, though, that Sembène has empathy for the pathetic creature he has created for Jelinek to play. Were the film being made through a Eurocentric, perhaps a Godardian lens, that character would likely be its focal point: an anthropomorphized slab of breathy ennui, undesired sexually by her husband. Through Sembène’s eyes, however, the focus has shifted entirely.
Diouana is a victim, it’s true, but she is also a refreshingly multidimensional character. A succession of flashbacks illustrates her previous life in Dakar, including her short-lived romance with a young student (Momar Nar Sene) and her joy at being selected by Madame—a onetime resident of colonial Dakar—to work for her in France. For the most part, Sembène keeps us at a distance, but when he judiciously cuts to huge close-ups of Diop’s doleful, open face—tears in her eyes, eyes to the sky—Diouana’s anguish registers like an uppercut to the solar plexus. Her parlous, unmoored position is reflected in the film’s French title, La noire de . . ., which contains an ambiguity lost in the stately English translation. The ellipsis after the preposition leaves unspecified whether de means “from”—as in coming from a specific place—or the possessive of, which reduces Diouana to the status of property. Both interpretations are appropriate; the distinction becomes academic in the light of the character’s swift decline and suicide—a definitive act of spiritual reclamation.
Though Black Girl operates in a mostly realistic realm, Sembène skillfully injects metafictional and metaphysical layers. Fully embracing the griot role, he appears in the film as a schoolmaster and writer, never without his signature pipe; as a local public figure, Sembène would have been instantly recognizable to his audience. The film also carries a powerful symbolic charge, embodied in the form of the traditional African mask that Diouana naively gives to her new employers on her first day of work in France. As this mask—an “authentic” African emblem for its bourgeois owners—gazes from its perch in the living room, it haunts the pallid space with pre-independence ghosts, while strongly invoking the idea, put forward by writer Frantz Fanon, of the “mask” black people must adopt in order to advance in a white world.
Diouana’s decision to reclaim her mask signals the moment at which she decides to regain control of her life, by any means necessary. After her suicide, the crushing remorse of Monsieur—he’s a clear forebear of Michael Haneke’s myriad guilt-racked French liberals—compels him to return the mask to Dakar. In an electrifying coda, the mask finds its way into the hands of a young boy there, and becomes a totem of anti-assimilationist sentiment, vibrating with pro-African resistance; it seems to almost literally propel a frantic Monsieur back toward the airport. In Black Girl’s closing moments, then, a desperately sad saga is transformed into a transcendent howl of hope for a new Africa.
After Black Girl, Sembène used his work to attack systemic perfidy, hypocrisy, and oppression in all its forms: conscription of Africans into the French military in Emitaï (1971); an ineffectual, westernized black bourgeoisie in the brutal satire Xala (1975); Christian and Muslim attempts to impose themselves on African traditions in the deeply controversial Ceddo (1976); the practice of female genital mutilation in his final film, the all-out assault Moolaadé (2004). Sembène was congenitally incapable of making indifferent films, and everything that marked him out—his fire, skill, compassion, and vision—is fully present in his startling, unforgettable debut.
Ashley Clark is a writer and film programmer from London, based in New York. He writes about film and culture for the Guardian, VICE, Film Comment, and Sight & Sound, among other publications, and is a regular guest critic on the BBC’s Film show. His first book is Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (The Critical Press, 2015). He has programmed at venues including London’s BFI Southbank and New York’s BAMcinématek and Light Industry.