Combustible Celluloid
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With: Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine, Momar Nar Sene, Ibrahima Boy
Written by: Ousmane Sembene
Directed by: Ousmane Sembene
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 65
Date: 11/17/2016

Black Girl (1966)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Behind the Mask

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Celebrating its 50th anniversary with a crisp new restoration, Black Girl (1966) is often considered to be the first African feature film to be seen in the West and elsewhere. It was the feature directing debut of Senegal-born author Ousmane Sembene, who went on to become a highly respected filmmaker the world over, and who died in 2007 after his final masterpiece Moolaade.

In Black Girl (originally titled La Noire de...), a naïve Dakar girl, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), gets a job as a nanny for a French family, and is excited that she will get to travel with them to France. Unfortunately, once there, she is unceremoniously turned into a maid, never even getting to leave. Her mistress is a permanently clenched, angry woman (Anne-Marie Jelinek) who looms like a snapping threat. Meanwhile, her ambivalent husband (Robert Fontaine) drinks too much, perhaps understandably.

Sembene shows Diouana's story with flashbacks to her days in Dakar, with a handsome suitor (Momar Nar Sene). Though the movie is filmed in black and white, these scenes burst with vibrancy, such as when Diouana cheerfully and rebelliously walks a balancing act on top of a solemn war memorial. An African mask figures into the story prominently, becoming both a prop and a metaphor. In the final scene, a small boy dons the mask and follows, like a ghost, the white family's father, after an unpleasant errand. Running only 65 minutes the movie is compact, but extremely potent; Sembene's simple camera setups articulate great poetry. It's a movie of dashed hopes and unexpected beauties, and it's a masterpiece.

It's often shown with an earlier short work of Sembene's, Borom Sarret (1963) — or "the wagoner" — about a poor man who tries to earn his living transporting people on a horse-drawn cart, but more often than not ends up cheated or abandoned. It's unrelentingly pessimistic, but it's also a striking, accomplished film. If you're in San Francisco November 17-20, 2016, you can see both films at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

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