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Ousmane Sembène & the significance of telling authentic black stories

The Senegalese director's classic film Black Girl illustrates the violence of colonialism and does the important work of telling the black life story as it should be told: through first-hand experience
Thu, Jun 03, 2021

Shot in black and white, Ousmane Sembène's Diouana is black and regal as she strides across a reception area upon arrival in France. Sembène foregrounds her arrival with images of white working men hauling rope on large sea vessels. He assaults the senses with the cantankerous din of ships hooting, birds brooding and the wind bellowing rigorously.

When Diounna appears, she gives this 'civilisation' some class and an air of respectability.

As Sembène's debut feature, the film Black Girl is rich with algorithmic symbolism and he presents before the viewer signs and symbols of a larger picture that is manifesting.

Viewed within the context of its creation, it remains cinematic art and the performances are suitably restrained – especially by Mbissine Thérèse Diop, the lead who plays Diounna.

Sembène's framing of Senegal and its struggles within the grasp of fierce colonial rule is astounding for the simple fact that he sees black people as human. Hence Diounna and her family, love interest and extras are placed in each scene with grace and nobility, despite the unflinching remnants of imperial rule.

The film centres on Diouana, a young Senegalese woman, who moves from Dakar, Senegal to Antibes, France to work for a French couple. In France, Diouana hopes to continue her former job as a nanny and anticipates a new cosmopolitan lifestyle.

However, upon her arrival in Antibes, Diouana experiences harsh treatment from the couple, who force her to work as a servant. She becomes increasingly aware of her constrained and alienated situation and starts to question her life in France.

Gently and subtly, Sembène takes us through Diounna's journey as layers upon layers of her confidence are peeled back by the new country. Like colonialism, they cunningly lured her away with promises of a better life that awaited her in France. The other levers of settler conquest through cultural imperialism (western media) were already at work in sculpting the African imagination with regards to how Europe offered a superior life/style.

Diounna remains steadfast despite the harsh treatment – determined in her will to remain who she is and not what her employers imagine her to be.

Sadly, such treatment of black female bodies for labour remains in settler colonies today. South Africa is one such example where domestic help continues to exist under inhumane conditions, are subjected to foul language and emotional abuse, and earn wages unfit for dignified living.

Stylistically, Sembène is malevolent with dialogue and prefers, rather, for the picture to tell the story. The main character's voiceover is used sparingly, while the emotional violence of her employer is there for all to see.

Diounna does not lash out physically – instead, she remains a picture of a woman that engages in quiet protest making the French couple look rather uncultured and uncouth in their behaviour.

Throughout the film, there are hints of what writer Tshiamo Malatji, in the book The Lives of Black Folk, describes as the 'Process of Complex', which he says "is so unnoticeable, we do not realise it is occurring".

Malatji continues further:

"White people develop institutions to spread widely the idea that white life is superior. Institutions of education, religion, lifestyle, recreation and various forms of social relations… create norms of white superiority. The knowledge we are given access to on black histories, cultures and identity are filtered through a white gaze; to distort and undermine how we think about ourselves. We are dressed in the cloth of whiteness, told to scorn the naked blackness, and are removed from ourselves. At the same time, white people are reinforced with the knowledge of their supposed superiority."

Sembène illustrates this not through dialogue but through moving images and embedding them in the quotidian existence of life in that period.

Diounna, although experiencing this through her struggle with her "employers", is well aware of the structure despite being unable to read and write. She can see it, she can feel it, and is simply fed up with it – as we should all be.

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