How I See Myself in Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966)

by Kesensa Mordi

It’s rare that you watch a film and find it hard to remember the name of the protagonist. However, as I watched Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, I found myself forgetting the protagonist's name numerous times, unusually so. I pondered on it while I watched and again when the film came to an end. How is that possible? How can I watch a film and not remember the main character's name? Especially when her role as a maid -- her name gets cried out far more times than could truly be necessary. Yet, her name was unable to stay still in my mind. I wonder if it's because in the protagonist I see myself, and many other black women.

“Ousmane presents racist caricatures in this 59-minute tragedy which overlap with a clearly existing reality.

The film's unambiguous title, “Black Girl”, further invites my mind to attach every ‘black girl’ to the film and the experiences of the protagonist. Sembène presents racist caricatures in this 59-minute tragedy which overlap with a clearly existing reality. The American ‘mammy’ stereotype of the black women whose life existence is that of servitude and domestic childcare work. Most importantly serving white people rather than their own family. The second stereotype being that of the oversexualized black woman - one who is not sexually pure but rather innately promiscuous and sexually predatory.

Diouana’s opportunity to travel and leave home for a so-called “better” life is rooted in her serving others. During her work as a maid, she is forcibly grabbed by an eager guest who claims he has never kissed a black woman before. To the man, Diouana is nothing but more than an object, worse than a sculpture in a museum to be gawked at and poked at and laughed at.

As the film progresses, I ask myself, why would anyone go through such tormenting moments just for the sake of money, all under the guise of a “better” life. It caused me to look at my own life and the stress I have – and continuously – put myself through, also under a similar guise of a ‘better’ life. As black women, we have a certain strength and resilience within, that contrasts strongly against the forcible silence which is placed upon many of us. The overall arc of our socialization - being that we should be subservient in all situations. I battle with the idea of strength and vulnerability. Slowing down and being kind to myself, versus waking up and hustling to the death of me. I see a similar spirit within the protagonist Diouana, however, her resilience (if that's what we choose to call it) is somewhat stronger than mine because I believe resilience is where strength lies.

“You feel Diouana’s despair and loneliness the more intense her inner  thoughts become.

When Diouana was confused, I was confused. Why would her employers carry her to this place where there are no children for her to take care of? As Diouana was lonely, I felt lonely too, like that of a prisoner stuck within four suffocating walls. Alone in a different country with no family or acquaintances, and not being allowed outside unless it's to the grocery store. Her existence and livelihood was completely contingent on the livelihood and wellbeing of her employers. To make it even more extreme, not working meant that she would not be fed. Her commitment to sustaining her employer's quality of life was necessary for her survival, she essentially has no choice in the matter. What could Diouana possibly do in a country, all alone, with nowhere to go or nowhere to turn? You feel Diouana’s despair and loneliness the more intense her inner thoughts become. You feel a sense of shame and extreme dependency when we learn that Diouana cannot speak French and can only understand it. This makes it near impossible for her to communicate her ideas and feelings. How can she truly express confidence if she has been completely silenced?

The emotions I felt at the beginning of Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl mirror the emotions I felt as the film came to an end. The suspense that filled my heart at the title card is the same suspense my heart was filled with when the film came to an end. Upon first introduction to Diouana, I automatically felt my heart awaken to the desires and dreams that she may have carried. With the film's synopsis completely unbeknownst to me, I was unsure what to expect. The film's opening shots make it clear that this is Diouana’s story, and this is her universe. However, as the film progresses, we the audience are forced to question how much of this is Diouana’s story in actuality.

“This clear ideology born and raised in white supremacy shows that Diouana is viewed as inferior and inhumane, yet she is good enough to serve and prepare their food.”

We bear witness to Diouana being silenced over and over again. She’s silenced by her employers, who view her as nothing more than a servant, their guests even going as far to view her as an animal. This clear ideology born and raised in white supremacy shows that Diouana is viewed as inferior and inhumane, yet she is good enough to serve and prepare their food. Diouana is silenced by her mother, who doesn’t really ask much about how she's doing and automatically assumes she's living lavishly without them. This can be explained further by the effects of colonialism - her mother expects her to be nothing but happy in the land that is supposed to be greater and grander than home. In Diouana’s mother’s eyes, how could she possibly be in France and not living ‘lavishly’ and buying nice things. Sembène positions the land of the colonizers as a land much sadder, more painful and gut-wrenching than the home that the French have tried to demonize and appear as lesser than.

Back home in Dakar, Diouana is a force of sheer willpower and motivation. She wants work; therefore, she will work. By any means, she will find work and she will make money. Out of many maids waiting on the curb for work, Diouana’s poignant character, subtle confidence, and most importantly, indifference to the future employer's arrival, is what lands her the job. The same reasons which soon make her employer envy Diouana. The confidence which was once attractive becomes that which makes her the object of torment. I was initially very conflicted when I finished Black Girl and I was even more conflicted on how I would choose to write about such a magnificent film. However, when you speak from the heart, it’s impossible not to speak honestly with as much transparency as possible.

Our protagonist Diouana represents a community. A community of African people who have suffered from colonialism. A community of women - African women. Black girls of the diaspora. Of the motherland and abroad. Of the past, the present, and hopefully not the future. Let the passions and desires of African women live, let our livelihood be strong, and most importantly, let us be remembered at least in our own stories. Thank you Ousmane Sembène.

Directed by Ousmane Sembène.


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