Thursday, April 8, 2010

La noire de...(Black Girl) 1966

Haunting, haunting Senegalese film called La Noire de... (Black Girl) is streaming on Netflix... while I was overcome by the general themes of alienation and loneliness of the main character, a woman who comes from Dakar to the French Riviera and is treated to a sea change of attitude from her employer, I selfishly was also awestruck by her presense and style. She looked like a moving piece of a still painting. Director Ousmane Sembene made the film as his first full length motion picture in 1966-- it's considered by most to be the birth of Sub-Saharan filmmaking. I haven't been so impressed with a "first film" since probably The 400 Blows. What a bang to start with.

Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) is initially thrilled to find a job in Dakar working for a white French family with small children-- she's chosen from a gaggle of local women who wait on a streetcorner every morning to be looked over by prospective employers because of her cool, calm demeanor in the midst of the scrabbling, prospective bonnes. When the Pouchets ask to follow the family to the French Riviera to continue in their employ, Diouana is convinced by the chance to see "real French", the colonial ideal of the mother country-- her perception of "real French" is drastically altered by her experiences in the family's new home. Her faith in the essential kindness of the woman of the house, it turns out, was badly misplaced-- the same mistress who would hand down to Diouana her only slightly secondhand French dresses and high heels suddenly insists she change her elaborate dress (a polka dot silk sheath, earrings, and necklace, a Westernized version of the beautiful, baroquely traditional clothes she wore in Senegal) and wear something more appropriate to her station. Relations become more and more strained between employer and employee-- though Diouana speaks fluent French, when a party guest asks the lady of the house if her maid speaks the language, she replies in the negative, saying that Diouana "seems to understand intuitively". Thinking their comments are falling on deaf, savage ears, the party guests go on to discuss Diouana, in her presense, as if she were a zebra, or some other exotic, though fundamentally bête, creature. One man rises from the table to kiss her on the mouth. "Je n'ai jamais embrasse une noire! Ma premiere noire!" he says boisterously. The bitter taste of that line ("I never kissed a black before! My first black!") lingers for the rest of the scene, as does the shocked and embarrassed expression on Diouana's face as the man clumsily embraces her.

The narrative is carried by Diouana's internal monologues-- only in her inner life and in her mind does she react to the slights and slings of her experience in an alien and rejecting culture, keeping a stoic front to all outside goings-on. Her actions seem inexplicable to her employers, but as the audience, we're allowed a very privileged insight into her thoughts by way of her own voice, which draw clear lines between her deep, deep emotional wounds and the consequences of her employers' newly adopted UBER-colonialist attitudes. While she had the respect of a regular worker in Dakar, Diouana is reduced to an appliance, a convenience, in her role in the French Riviera. Her lassitude, her hesitance, her depression and feeling of complete displacement is clear to us, and yet the mistress considers her lazy, shiftless. At one point, Mrs. Pouchet declares “If you don’t work, you won’t eat,” to which Diouana replies “If I don’t eat, I won’t work". What seems like childishness on Diouana's part to the mistress-- however, seen from Diouana's perspective, Mrs. Pouchet is the childish one, refusing her the basic necessity of food in her insistence on perpetuating the belief that Diouana is "inexplicably" difficult after the move to the Riviera, her refusal to see another human being suffering.

The push and pull of the relationship hits a breaking point in the final fifteen minutes of the movie, but I won't spoil for you what is an entirely unspoilt film. From the first reel of the film, the moment you see the beautiful black girl stepping off the boat, walking down the long gangway and decidedly not disappearing into the crowd, striking a very distinct figure across the faceless "other" she's entering, to the last reel, you are 110% committed to her. To watch her struggle to its conclusion is a jarring, but altogether moving experience. At 65 minutes, the economy with which Sembene tells the story is to be praised, but not nearly as much as his accomplishment in creating a character that lingers long after the credits roll.

Black Girl on Wikipedia

Black Girl on Netflix

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