Wielding contrasts in hue as overarching metaphor, Ousmane Sembène detects racial conflict at every rung of the social ladder, revealing ethnicity as emotional baggage to be exchanged in the name of upward mobility. Through his cinematic surrogate, Sembène examines the effects of isolation and cultural bereavement on the migrant worker, treating the allure of cosmopolitan living as a dead end for those unable to abandon their melanin along with their homeland. Despite the dichotomy struck between the communality of the Dakarois and the aloofness of the Maralpines, Sembène finds common ground in the obstacle of acclimation for both parties, exposing acculturation and false altruism as different sides of the same coin.
Enchanted by the calming beauty of the Côte d'Azur’s unclouded waters, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) examines France from the passenger seat, beholding the “exotic” in the same fashion that her Gallic employers marvel at her pigmentation. Advancing from a role as pro tem nanny in Senegal to domestic servant in Antibes, Diouana envisions her future in the vast wall of glass and brick that comprises her apartment complex, mistaking its fashionable anonymity as a remedy for humble beginnings. Ironically, the immensity and uniformity of her surroundings will parallel the soulless monotony of her tasks, ensnaring her in a socioeconomic prison far from her Parisian fantasy and the amenities of home.
Sembène further quarantines Diouana by sequestering her grievances to an internal monologue, utilizing non-diegetic voice-over to mirror detachment from maîtresse and society alike. The natural imbalance between light and dark in black-and-white film stock also channels the disconnection between our protagonist and her surroundings, amplifying the contrast between her complexion and the smooth, egg-shell surfaces of her monochromic workspace, allowing the juxtaposition to be a perennial symbol of inequality.
By limiting Diouana’s personality to passages of servitude and fleeting memories, Sembène employs superficiality as a condemnation of societal roles, uncovering the connection between the demoralizing nature of labor and an ever-growing disparity between the classes. Observing from the surface also magnifies a shared failure for each race in question, correlating the exchange of gifts between Diouana and her hosts as acts of cultural appropriation.
While Diouana’s adoption of a polka-dot party dress reveals a desire to shed her skin and embrace Western culture, her maîtriser’s appreciation for an authentic African mask descends into the realm of commodification, mutating the object into a totem of Diouana’s dehumanization and French colonization. This transformation imparts Ousmane Sembène’s subtle work of domestic drama with a palpable sense of foreboding, manifesting the ghosts of oppression in each blank stare of the aforementioned disguise.
Black Girl (Filmi Domirev, 1966)
Written and Directed by Ousmane Sembène
Photographed by Christian Lacoste
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