This sobering realty usually strikes me during the annual New York Film Festival, now in the home stretch of its densely packed, 17-day schedule. Because of my proclivity for classics and the ready access I have to contemporary releases after they premiere at the NYFF, I usually forego new films and refocus my attention on revivals. And this year’s offerings don’t disappoint, with sixteen pre-1985 releases, five of which I’ve already seen. (I wrote about two here.)
Last night’s selection was BLACK GIRL (1965), the feature film debut from Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. Described by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s programming director Dennis Lim as “the film that paved the way for African cinema,” this spare, neorealist work tells the story of Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a young woman who leaves her impoverished village in Senegal to nanny for a wealthy French couple.
All is well until Diouana arrives at the family’s home, where her cell-like bedroom overlooks the French Riviera. But her dreams of a glamorous life on the Côte d’Azur are soon dashed, as her mistress (Anne-Marie Jelinck) begins to treat her more like an indentured servant than a caretaker for her children.
“I’m no cook, no cleaning woman!” Diouana laments (in an internal dialogue that serves as the film’s narration) as she scrubs dishes and floors in her fanciest dress.
The exploitation reaches its zenith when Diouana is displayed to dinner guests as an exotic curiosity, with one pervy male guest rising to kiss the “negress,” something he proudly announces he has never done before.
Diouana’s increasing hopelessness is heightened by Sembene’s narrative structure, which weaves her dispiriting present with moments from a more optimistic past. We see her dance with joy when she gets the job, an image rendered all the more tragic by the drudgery dumped upon her by her shrill, entitled mistress.
That the story ends sadly will not come as a surprise, yet Sembene avoids the easy payoff, despite our desire for justice. BLACK GIRL is a remarkably restrained film, but still thoroughly engaging. I found obvious narrative parallels to contemporary New York City, where privileged Yuppies routinely bark orders at foreign-born au pairs seeking a better life.
BLACK GIRL has been beautifully restored by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project in collaboration with the Sembene Estate. It screened at the NYFF in DCP, courtesy of Janus Films. It’s highly recommended.