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  Black Girl What Did Your Last Servant Die Of?Buy this film here.
Year: 1966
Director: Ousmane Sembene
Stars: Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine, Momar Nar Sene, Ibrahima Boy, Bernard Delbard, Nicole Donati, Raymon Lemeri, Suzanne Lemeri
Genre: Drama
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Diouanna (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) thought she was going to have a great life in France when she accepted a job with a local couple to look after their children. She was from Senegal and the thought of making something of herself far from home and sending her wages back to her relatively not well off family filled her with pride as she believed the opportunities were going to mount up. She disembarks the ship to the South of France and is picked up at the port by her new employer (Robert Fontaine) who on the journey to the apartment points out the lovely countryside there, which builds up her hopes even further. But there's a problem that becomes apparent when she finally arrives at her new home…

Black girl, or La Noire de… as it was called originally, was a landmark in African cinema as director Ousmane Sembene was the first black African to make a film. Precisely why it had taken until 1966 for that to happen may have been worth some debate, but letter late than never, and its novelty generated plenty of interest around the time of its release, especially as it was in effect black Africa accusing white Europe of never having given up its colonial period and exploiting the people of the continent to the south in different ways than the days of slavery, but no less damaging for the modern times of the nineteen-sixties. He encapsulated this in the character of Diouanna who quickly finds the situation unbearable.

She thought she was going to a better life in Europe, but it doesn't turn out that way, and indeed the overt implication was that she was better off staying where she was originally, especially in light of her ultimate fate. But Sembene didn't blame her for outright stupidity, she was not portrayed as an idiot by any means, simply out of her depth when she makes the trip to France, feeling homesick, lonely and isolated, not to mention bullied by her new employer, the wife (Anne-Marie Jelinek) who takes it for granted she will be at her beck and call at all times of the day, and does not deserve any kind of reasonable working relationship that say, a worker from France who was white would expect in their occupation.

The spectre of racism was never far away, and this ends up haunting the white characters by the end of the film in a sequence that sees their colonial guilt chasing them back from whence they came thanks to clever use of a tribal mask that Diouanna saw hanging in her employers' home and took a liking to as it represented the life she had now regretfully left behind. But this is cold comfort when she is barely allowed out of the apartment to enjoy some leisure time and a chance to make new friends, all she is required to do is cook and clean and doesn't even see the children that often as she anticipated, maybe every so often permitted to visit the grocer's to stock up on comestibles, and the grind of this existence is depicted in a manner that would get to anyone.

Sembene was accused by some less sympathetic commentators of having very little style to better convey his story, yet that wasn't true, he was shooting this as plainly as possible to show the crushing monotony of Diouanna's turmoil. The flashbacks to Senegal illustrated what a bright, intelligent young woman she was, unwilling to be taken advantage of by her boyfriend or by anyone else, and a scene where she playfully skips across the top of a war memorial was deliberately provocative, as if to ask what the Senegalese, the Africans in general in fact, were doing helping out one band of oppressors against another. There are those who have queried the logic of her actions come the end of the film, but this was based on a true story, and Sembene if nothing else was attempting to anchor his tale in truth - you may not like what he says, but there was an authenticity to his integrity that made very valid points. If nothing else, he paved the way for indigenous African cinema to be taken seriously.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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