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Taut, Moving 'Black Girl' Helped Put African Cinema On The Map

Feb 10, 2017
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The writer and director Ousmane Sembene, who died in 2007, is the most famous and acclaimed black African filmmaker. His first film, "Black Girl," which came out in 1966, was instantly hailed as a cultural breakthrough. A new, restored version of the film is now out on DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes streaming. Our critic at large John Powers says "Black Girl" isn't merely a landmark but a movie that still packs a wallop.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We can all name movies that take place in Africa, from the many adventures of "Tarzan" to Oscar-winning hits like "Out Of Africa." But these are not movies that actually come out of Africa. They were made by outsiders looking in. In fact, I'd wager that most Westerners have never seen an African story filmed from the inside. There's no better way to correct this than "Black Girl," the taut, moving 1966 film that's widely regarded as the first ever fiction feature by a black African director. It was written and directed by Ousmane Sembene, a brilliant Senegalese auteur who wasn't merely the godfather of African cinema but probably the greatest artist it has yet produced.

Now out on DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes streaming in a gorgeous new restauration from Criterion, Sembene's debut feels as timely today as it did half a century ago. "Black Girl" centers on Diouana, a young illiterate Senegalese woman, played by the lovely Mbissine Therese Diop, who has worked for a French colonial couple in the capital city of Dakar. She's thrilled when they ask her to move with them to the Riviera. Filled with fantasies of her new life, she dons high heels and her best dress. She's going to be French. Diouana soon discovers the chasm separating her dreams and reality. Not only do her bosses live in a high-rise apartment instead of the villa they'd enjoyed in Africa, but the France she now inhabits is the space in which she cooks and cleans, an imprisoning kitchen, bath and living room that offer teasing glimpses out the window of the sea.

When Diouana is not being publicly shown off like an exotic pet, her mistress privately treats her like a slave. She rebels, but what can she do? She can't even read, let alone answer, the letters from her mother back in Senegal. Her employers do that for her. Of course, there's nothing more familiar than masters treating their servants badly. But what made "Black Girl" groundbreaking in its day, and still gives it an incandescent power, is that these are black Africans telling their own story and telling it with a searing passion. Although Sembene is clearly making a political point about the West's dehumanizing treatment of poor Africans, he never lets his heroine become an abstraction. We feel her pain, humiliation and anger at having her humanity invalidated.

One reason that Sembene could pull this off was that, by the time he made "Black Girl," he was a man in his 40s who knew life. This was no film school brat but the son of a poor Muslim fisherman who'd fought with the Free French forces during World War II, stowed away to do manual labor in France, returned to Senegal in time for independence in 1960, became a largely self-taught writer - his 1960 novel, "God's Bits Of Wood," is tremendous - and then became a filmmaker because so many of his countrymen couldn't read. To reach them, he needed to make movies, and that's just what he did. Over the next decade, Sembene would go on to make richer and more complex works than "Black Girl."

You should be sure to see his 2004 feminist masterwork "Moolaade." But this first one remained the foundation stone. It put an entire continent on the movie map and showed other would-be African filmmakers what was possible. It opened up the world, and it did this with an artistry startling in a new director. Beautifully shot by Christian Lacoste, this movie about black people and white people becomes a symphony in blacks and whites, from the black-and-white tile floors to the black patterns on Diouana's white dresses to the newspaper article about her that appears near the end. The whole story is encapsulated in the African mask that Diouana gives to her mistress on her first day of work. Each time we see it, its emotional charge has changed until the mask has gone from being a gesture of appreciation to a symbol of angry rebellion.

In the process, "Black Girl" radically changes our perspective. As Westerners, we begin the movie thinking we're watching Africans, but we realize that Africans like Sembene have been watching us, too, and know us far better than we know them.

DAVIES: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com.

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DAVIES: We'll talk with Joseph Turow about his new book, "The Aisles Have Eyes." Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Terry Gross returns Monday. I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.