Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl is generally regarded as the first feature length film made by a Black African in Sub-Saharan Africa. The pioneering film tells the story of Diouana (played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a young Senegalese woman who moves from Dakar to Antibes in France to work as a nanny for a white couple. The film explores the theme of colonialism and illustrates the way in which Diouana is exploited by her employers and the emotional breakdown this causes within her.
Sembene tells Diouana’s story by juxtaposing the present tense with flashbacks to Dakar; this technique illustrates her expectations of a new cosmopolitan life. The contrast of her reality, as a house-bound cook, cleaner and child minder, and her initial hopes of a prosperous and stylish life in France are effectively emotive. Sembene is capable of creating a strong empathy for Diouana, in spite of the relatively clunky technicalities of the script and direction. The film suffers from a somewhat unrealistic sense of time and a lack of motivation for secondary characters; this creates a lack of naturalism and leads to the film feeling overtly staged.
The film is grounded by Mbissine Thérèse Diop’s performance; she subtly creates a downtrodden character with whom we can empathise. Her desire to embrace her idealised life in France is excellently portrayed in the design of her costume. A genuine sense of sadness is created as we realise her nice clothes were simply a bribe, persuading her to move to France. As well as this Sembene uses the visual motif of an African mask, which Diouana gives to her employers and then reclaims; this is an attempt to illustrate the fruitless trade off she had to make for a life in France.
While some of Black Girl’s visual metaphors such as the mask feel a little crude, the film still achieves an authentic sense of power. This power comes from Sembene’s intent on getting the story on the screen and communicating it with a clear-cut voice, as a Senegalese filmmaker.