Ousmane Sembène’s first feature, Black Girl, begins with a shot over a bay in the French Riviera as a large cruise liner, against a clear sky and still waters, pulls into a port. It’s a peaceful, optimistic image, one immediately countered by a fraught scene of a Senegalese woman, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), disembarking at customs. The open, pastoral beauty of the seascape is replaced by a confusing throng of people and scattered luggage, and handheld shots place the us in Diouana’s uncertain and uncomfortable headspace. Once she makes her way through customs, she’s picked up by her boss, a white man (Robert Fontaine) whose wife (Anne-Marie Jelinek) hired her while in Senegal to be the family maid. Upon joining the family in France, however, Diouana finds that she’s now become maid, cook, and nanny, doing everything for the family short of working the patriarch’s job.
Told from Diouana’s perspective, Black Girl frequently disrupts its timeline and emotional pitch. Immediately confronted with the woman’s frustration with her work, the audience gradually learns, via flashbacks, of her initial enthusiasm for leaving home and her dreams of a comfortably Western life. In Dakar, she responds to her job offer with total jubilation, sprinting home and dancing around her elderly mother and chanting, “I got a job with white folks!” Diouana’s euphoria in this moment speaks to intersecting social observations on the economic realities of life in Senegal and the identity crisis of post-colonialism. Crucially, by placing these scenes after those in which we already see Diouana driven to malaise and despair by the realities of her endless servitude, the film eschews a linear structure that would have placed the emphasis on her slow breakdown and instead calls direct attention to the hollow promise of Western life for Senegalese on Western terms.
Sembène visualizes Diouana’s displacement with shots that alternate between angular, off-center compositions and ones in which the woman is filmed alone in the center of the frame. Both setups are alienating and alienated, ensuring that Diouana never exists on the same level with her bosses, who are only referred to as Monsieur and Madame so as to emphasis the power imbalance between them and Diouana. In a dinner scene, Diouana is claustrophobically framed as she’s subjected to her bosses’ ogling friends, including a lecherous old man who kisses her simply because he’s never kissed a black woman before. And as Diouana becomes more of a fixture than a human being throughout, she increasingly blends into the background, growing ever more static and wasting away as Madame can only rage at her for idleness.
Black Girl largely avoids symbolism in favor of following the emotional cues of its drained protagonist. A notable exception is the tribal mask Diouana gifts to Monsieur and Madame as a thank-you gift, a trinket she buys off a boy back home and that her bosses hang in their kitchen. The mask plays a key role in the final act, first when Diouana attempts to reclaim it to regain any kind of connection to her former self, and finally in a haunting coda in which Monsieur returns to Dakar and is disturbed to see it worn by the boy who sold it to Diouana. That Sembène suggests that the mask is a piece of kitsch as much to the people of Dakar as the white family who decorates a wall with it doesn’t detract from the curious power it holds in the film’s final minutes, an evocation of a history that ensnares Diouana and her bosses equally.
Restored from a 4K scan, Black Girl shows signs of age throughout in small tears and spots, but otherwise the film looks great. The high-contrast cinematography, which further highlights the cultural split between Diouana and her employers, is crisply rendered with consistent grain levels. At times, the detail is so fine that you can see the steam rising off a bowl of rice in a long shot. The sound, which was entirely post-dubbed, has the inherent tinniness of such a recording, but dialogue is still clear, and the disconnect of the dubbing only enhances the film's atmosphere of dislocation.
The most significant extra on the Criterion Collection's disc is a 4K restoration of Ousmane Sembène's debut short film, Borom Sarret, an intriguing social drama that sidesteps the usual beatifying oversimplification of many neorealist films by admitting that extreme poverty engenders selfishness out of sheer instinct for survival. The disc also comes with interviews with film scholars and a newly recorded interview with Mbissine Thérèse Diop, as well as a brief interview recorded with Sembène shortly after Black Girl won the Prix Jean Vigo. "Sembène: The Making of African Cinema" is an hour-long documentary that covers the filmmaker's career and the issues he faced in trying to bring his work to wider audiences. Interestingly, an unused sequence shot in color is included, offering a further glimpse into Sembène's aesthetic ambitions. Finally, a booklet contains an essay by film critic Ashley Clark that explores Black Girl's themes. Most notable is Clark's astute observation that Madame's interactions with Diouana may be additionally hostile in direct response to Monsieur's relative kindness.
Ousmane Sembène’s seminal debut feature is an important landmark in world cinema, and its restoration, along with that of the director’s equally revealing first short, makes this disc an early highlight of Criterion’s 2017 slate.