#95 (tie): 'Black Girl': The Reveal discusses all 100 of Sight & Sound's Greatest Films of All Time
With his debut feature, Senegalese author and activist Ousmane Sembène fleshes out a ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy about a young woman from Dakar whose job in France isn't what she imagines.
On December 1st, 2022, Sight & Sound magazine published “The Greatest Films of All Time,” a poll that’s been updated every 10 years since Bicycle Thieves topped the list in 1952. It is the closest thing movies have to a canon, with each edition reflecting the evolving taste of critics and changes in the culture at large. It’s also a nice checklist of essential cinema. Over the course of many weeks, months, and (likely) years, we’re running through the ranked list in reverse order and digging into the films as deep as we can. We hope you will take this journey with us.
Black Girl (1966)
Dir. Ousmane Sembène
Ranking: #95 (tie)
Previous rankings: N/A
Premise: As Black Girl opens, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a young woman from the Senegalese capital of Dakar, disembarks from a boat in Antibes in the South of France. There she plans to continue working for a middle class French couple referred to only as “Madame” (Anne-Marie Jelinek) and “Monsieur” (Robert Fontaine) while enjoying all that France has to offer her. Instead, she finds herself all but confined to Madame and Monsieur’s apartment, where she’s expected to spend every hour cooking and cleaning. As Diouana becomes increasingly sullen and her relationship with her employers grows hostile, the film flashes back Diouana’s life in France and the life she left behind.
Keith: The germ of Black Girl immediately puts us into spoiler territory, but that’s going to be unavoidable anyway. Director Ousmane Sembène was inspired by a small item in a newspaper about the suicide of a Senegalese woman in France and he weaves that point of inspiration into the film. After Diouana packs her bags and refuses payment from Monsieur for the work she’s done, she kills herself by slitting her throat in the bathtub in their apartment. The newspaper item noting the death is as brief as it is incurious about the larger story behind her death.
I was reminded of the Woody Guthrie song “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),”* which he was inspired to write by a newspaper article about a 1948 plane explosion that killed 28 migrant workers, none of whom were named in the news articles reporting the accident, all of whom were buried in a mass, unmarked grave. Guthrie gives four of them names — Juan, Rosalita, Jésus and Maria — and offers other humanizing details from the lives that were lost. It’s at once a protest song with a point to make and a stirring artistic creation.
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Sembène’s film serves a similar dual purpose. In the 1994 documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema, the director makes clear that he sees films as a means to a political end, saying, “Cinema is like an ongoing political rally with the audience.” Sembène, who adapted Black Girl from one of his own short stories, was an activist and author before he picked up a camera. He didn’t consider filmmaking until he turned 40 and made his feature debut with Black Girl at the age of 44. (He didn’t stop there, making eight more features through Moolaadé in 2004, which arrived three years before his death at the age of 84.) “I was driven to cinema,” he tells an audience of young admirers, “as a more effective tool for my activism. But if you ask my personal preference, I prefer literature to cinema. But in our time literature is a luxury.”
Those sound like the words of someone in the business of making simplistic, didactic films, but that can’t be said of Black Girl. And here’s where I confess that this was the first Sembène film I watched, but I also found it to be true of his debut short “Borom Sarret” and his second feature, Mandabi, both of which are part of the Criterion Collection (and available on the Criterion Channel) when I decided to explore a little further. I can at least partly blame Sembène, who did not like home video and resisted making his films available for home viewing, but that feels like letting myself off the hook for not knowing much about African cinema in general. But I don’t think I’m alone: Black Girl surged on the list after never appearing on a Sight & Sound poll before. I have to imagine that its wider availability didn’t hurt, but it’s also an example of the list casting a wider net.
If anything, it plays like a film that should have been canonized a long time ago: it’s both complex and upsetting, drawing stylistically from the French New Wave and offering a cutting depiction of colonialism and racism among characters who probably think themselves enlightened for employing a Black woman from Senegal. (Madame and Monsieur strike me as the ’60s French equivalent of characters who talk about how they would have voted for Obama a third time if they could.). But Diouana isn’t just a simple victim. She ultimately comes to understand her employers better than they understand themselves and responds to their abuses with what Sembène called a “defensive muteness.” Her death plays as much like an act of defiance as of despair, or, the very least, it’s hard to call it just one or the other. Those emotions feel tangled up.
Scott, I think this was your first time watching Black Girl, too. What were your impressions? And I’ve talked a lot about what the film is about broadly, but it’s one that works because of a lot of powerful individual moments. What stood out for you?
Scott: First off, I wanted to pause to appreciate the incredible surge this film has made on the list. It has never been in the Top 100 before, but I had assumed that perhaps it got a boost after falling just outside the range in the 2012 poll. Not so. Black Girl was ranked #359, just behind The King of Comedy and just ahead of another Sembène film, 1975’s Xala. I think we can see right away with the 2022 list that critics were trying to expand the canon a bit, and perhaps thinking about parts of the world that were underrepresented in previous polls. To that end, I think some credit for Black Girl’s surge should go to Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, which funded the film’s restoration, and Criterion, which subsequently released it as part of its collection.
The only Sembène film I’d seen before watching Black Girl for this conversation is his last, 2004’s Moolaadé, which won a huge amount of acclaim on the festival circuit, where Roger Ebert declared it the best film at Cannes, and later in the year, where it topped IndieWire’s foreign-language film poll (in which a younger me was a participant). Moolaadé decries the practice of genital mutilation in young girls, following a woman who shelters four of six such children in a village on the day they’re to be “cut.” Sembène juxtaposes the signs of modernity in the village with a cruel patriarchal tradition—one that is excruciatingly painful at best and lethal at worst for girls, and often results in C-sections for adults.
Memories of Moolaadé started flooding back for me in seeing Black Girl, because Sembène is again noting the contrast between an ostensibly cosmopolitan setting and a working situation that looks awfully close to slavery. And Diouana, though younger than Colle, the “protector” in Moolaadé, displays a similar courage in her refusal to submit to conditions that she understands as unjust. So in his first film and his last film, separated by 38 years, Sembène isn’t interested in making his women victims of circumstance—or at least passive victims of circumstance. They fight back, in their own ways, against historical forces that are vastly more powerful.
There are so many individual moments that stand out for me in Black Girl, but I think about Diouana’s desire to enjoy this beautiful place in which she’s been cooped up. Being in France is not just about duty for her, not just about earning enough money doing childcare work to send back home to her ailing mother. She wants to be French. She wants to go shopping for pretty dresses that will make others envious. And she absolutely looks the part from the moment she steps off the ship in Antibes: She’s young and beautiful and ready to go places, and that doesn’t stop when she discovers that she’s not going to go anywhere. Wearing that nice dress every day becomes an act of protest on her part, up to this remarkable moment where she walks out of her room in heels instead of sandals, enraging the “mistress” who expects her to submit to her condition.
Was there a particular scene that felt endemic to you, Keith? And what do you make of Sembène’s statement about using film as a form of activism? I’m usually skeptical about film as a vehicle for social change—it can lead to artlessness and didacticism in its worst iterations—but there’s something to be said about Sembène’s visual artistry here and perhaps his understanding that a globally popular medium might allow his ideas to travel more outside Senegal and literary circles.
Keith: I was really struck by the scene where Diouana, on an outing with her boyfriend (Momar Nar Sene), frolics atop a monument for what I believe to be the French casualties of World War II. On the one hand, yes, that’s an incredibly disrespectful gesture. On the other hand, Senegal isn’t under French control anymore, or at least not as a state. “Borom Sarret” makes pointed use of Dakar’s Place de l'Obélisque, a square built around a memorial to Senegal’s 1960 independence by letting it loom in the background while the film’s hero faces an existential monetary crisis that national independence has done nothing to fix. Here Diouana can make light of this memorial to the past because a brighter future awaits her as part of the first generation that should be able to put all that fully behind them.
I’m not sure she wants to be French, though. I think it’s more complicated than that. I think she feels that she should have the freedom to be who she wants, and that France offers more opportunities for that than Senegal, she believes. But she’s also grown up with a divided consciousness. In Sembène: The Making of African Cinema, Sembène talks extensively (including a conversation with a babyfaced John Singleton) about the colonized mind and Diouana seems like both a victim of this and a rebel against it. When she finds that life in France isn’t what she expected, she starts to shut down. But all her expectations had been set by an idea of France planted by colonization. The double consciousness is even a part of Black Girl. Making it a French-language film was a compromise on Sembène’s part to secure financing, but it’s one that works in the film’s favor. Would Diouana’s inner monologue really be in French? And what does it mean that it is?
I think message films, if we want to use that term, work so long as art surrounds the message, and that’s certainly the case here. I also think they work best when they’re complicated, as in this film and Mandabi, which uses black comedy to depict a world in which those who have little exploit those who have virtually nothing at all while never taking steps to short circuit the exploitative system in which they’re trapped. Sembène is interested in depicting the injustices of the world, but not in a simplistic way. If Diouana had been more passive and fragile or if her employers had been more directly sadistic instead of acting on unexamined prejudices (of the sort white viewers might recognize in themselves), it would be a much different and less compelling film.
Before we wind this conversation down, I want to talk about the film’s time machine elements, which it undoubtedly shares with a lot of movies we’ll be covering. Sembène made the choice to shoot on real locations, in the process preserving a moment in Senegal's history that might have been lost, or at least rendered less vivid, if he hadn’t made Black Girl. He did the same with Madame and Monsieur’s apartment, which is filled with on-trend mid-’60s decorations including African art, both genuine and otherwise. (This kind of exotica was popular in the West, but it has added resonance in the home of French citizens who divide their time between their home country and Africa.) When Diouana gives them a mask, they’re thrilled to receive an authentic piece of art, but it’s a piece that comes back to haunt them several times over, including that incredible final stretch in which Monsieur returns Diouana’s belongings to her mother.
It’s a brilliant detail and, again, one taken from the stuff of everyday life that Sembène demands his viewers consider in ways they hadn’t considered before. Scott, what did you make of the mask? To me it feels like an element, like much of the film, that Sembène knew would play differently to different audiences on either side of the colonial divide.
Scott: The mask is interesting, because it’s not a family heirloom but a found object that is of great value to Diouana, significant enough that she offers it as a gift to Monsieur and Madame, who have been shuffling through their own African masks, which they’ve accumulated like typical foreigners on the hunt for “exotic” objects. When they have friends over, the mask can serve as a conspicuous symbol of their worldliness, which of course was not what Diouana intended when she gave it to them. I think she intends it as a true gift, a humble gesture to express her gratitude about hiring her and secure their partnership. I can imagine that seeing it displayed so prominently on the wall was a relief when she first arrived, but as the situation curdles, she begins to understand what the mask actually means to them and it sickens her. Then you get that incredible scene later when she and Madame are playing tug-o-war with it, and Diouana will not relent.
I appreciate you helping to clarify what I meant by Diouana “wanting to be French,” because that’s not quite accurate, even if she does have an interest in engaging with the culture as freely as anyone else. There’s a special cruelty to the locale, too, that Sembène draws out whenever he gets the chance. This is the French Riviera, one of the most luxurious vacation spots in the world, and Monsieur and Madame’s apartment offers a tantalizing view from above. Sembène gives us that perspective occasionally, but he also cuts away to beach scenes and other B-roll-ish footage that feels pointedly disconnected from anyone’s point-of-view, as if they’re images from a faraway, unreachable planet. France is reduced to the prison where Diouana is kept, extrajudicially and without access to visitors.
Roger Ebert wrote a regrettable review of Black Girl at the time, in which he condescendingly (and misguidedly) wrote that “one feels that Sembène learned filmmaking by making this film” and singled out the white characters as “drawn as such broad caricatures that we never believe in them as flesh and blood.” (Ebert would turn around significantly on Sembéne later, as detailed here by his wife Chaz.) I think the psychological flattening of these characters is intentional and effective. How often have we seen the reverse, even in well-intentioned films, when white characters have a complexity that is denied Black characters, who exist either as subjects of abuse (e.g. most films about slavery) or beneficiaries of white largesse (e.g. The Blind Side)? Beyond that, though, I think a lot of Sembène’s dialogue, direct and incidental, hits the target here, whether it’s a dinner party where the white hosts and guests talk about the “good” places to go in Africa—life in Senegal is “easy,” but stay away from those civil wars in the Congo!—or Madame repeatedly raging about Diouana as lazy and ungrateful, as if this life of servitude is an obvious step up from the poverty she knew back home.
Diouana’s decision to slash her own throat in the bathtub is startling on so many levels. For one, that’s a point where Sembène chooses to cut away to a shot of sunbathers on the beach, which is a none-too-subtle exclamation point. But it’s also significant that cleaning the bathtub is the first task we see Diouana do once she gets to France and starts working, immediately thrown into a housemaid job that she had no expectation of having. She’s agreed to watch after the children and she spends that early period wondering to herself where they are. (Incidentally, I like that Diouana’s time with her employers ends with her refusing to do any more work, including watching their son. It’s a tough stance, given that the child is a blameless party.) She kills herself out of despair and hopelessness, but there’s a level of defiance to the act, too, in that she’s rejected the cash they’ve finally given her and will now leave them with a mess she won’t be around to clean up.
The coda pulls in two directions. There is the sad fact that the mess Diouana has left behind does get cleaned up, easily metabolized through an again-sparkling tub and a newspaper headline that will be forgotten about the next day. To the extent that the guilt does linger in Monsieur’s soul, however, it’s powerful to watch his effort to return her things to Senegal and leave money with her mother rejected by her family and community. This is the second time money has not been able to buy the French employers out of a problem, given that Diouana also rejected a payoff toward the end of the film. That last image of a boy taking the mask and chasing after Monsieur as he beelines back to the ship has revolutionary implications. The next generation, perhaps, might have different ideas about foreign relations.
For our next film, we’ll again visit a less-established cinematic nation with Thai director Apitchipong Weerasethakul’s 2004 film Tropical Malady. I wish I could say it’s widely available for readers eager to continue following along at home. But the only streaming outlet for it is the excellent library app Kanopy, and physical copies are either out-of-print or imported. (There are rumors of a 4K restoration floating around out there, though, and surely the Sight & Sound love will help.)
* Everyone from Joni Mitchell to The Byrds to The Highwaymen to Bruce Springsteen have covered the song. I like this version by Arlo Guthrie and Hoyt Axton.