BLACK GIRL: From Dakar to Antibes, A Story of Oppression

La Noire de… (1966), with its English name Black Girl, has the quality of being one of the first films from Sub-Saharan Africa. It is directed by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, who always aimed to educate his people. With this quality, Black Girl bears a great importance in terms of reflecting Francophone Africa, its colonized past and the oppression which occurred as a result. When we think of the movie’s cinematography, editing and other features, it is not a perfect production, but it has such an emotional undertone that it takes the audience under its effect. Then, the audience realizes that they aren’t able to pay attention to those imperfections since the movie has a lot to say. Besides, we see that all these things the movie is trying to say are unfortunately still valid today. We see that black people are still being killed and all black people from all around the world are fed up with this oppression and cruelty.

When we think of cinema as an art, it has the power of inciting its audience into thinking, feeling and / or action. Black Girl has the capability of making the audience realize things that they have never been aware of. Especially if you are from a country which is not familiar to this culture and especially if you are white it might be hard for you to understand how discrimination takes place. Today, thanks to social media, everyone from almost every country has an opportunity to see what has been going on in the world for years. Remaining silent or ignorant is not an option anymore and encountering Black Girl provides a chance for the audience to start from somewhere in terms of learning what people really experienced.

A Muted Identity

Diouana, played by beautiful Mbissine Thérèse Diop, is a woman from Dakar, living in poverty but filled with dreams. She wants to go to France, this country reflects another type of the American Dream for Senegalese people. We see these people living in bad conditions in Dakar. Women who would like to have a job just sit on the pavement and wait for a rescuer to come. Diouana sees that there are lots of women who wait for a job opportunity to come and there’s too much competition, but she keeps on sitting there for days. One day, an employer comes which we only know as Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek), she has no name, and she chooses Diouana. She chooses her because all the other women were acting chaotically, as if they were running for a piece of bread. They were actively participating in this contest. Diouana was calm, she was sitting in her dress. That’s why Madame decides to choose her, she was submissive.  

Diouana accepts the job. According to the definition of the task, she was supposed to take care of the kids. Madame and Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) treat her very kindly and Diouana always present herself as chic. She likes to wear high heels, a beautiful dress, and earrings. Diouana even gives a present to the family, a mask that she has bought from a kid in Dakar.  When they went to Antibes, everything changes, and power struggles start to arise.

The kids don’t stay at home and the couple always expect Diouana to serve. She isn’t an educated woman, so we never hear her speak. This is another implication of colonized people being mute and unable to speak. For a long time, they weren’t allowed to express themselves, even now, not much has changed. First, they weren’t seen as human beings, they were just animals in the eyes of white people who set all the rules for the society. Now, they are seen as human beings but in most societies, they are seen as if they were a 2nd class person, and needless to say, this point of view is the very definition of systematic racism. It’s certain that there’s still a very long way to go.

A History of Systematic Suppression and Broken Dreams

We usually see Monsieur as a passive person and he’s an alcoholic. It’s Madame who tries to oppress Diouana. She doesn’t let Diouana sleep, eat or wear the dress she always loves to wear. Many times, we see that basic rights of Diouana are violated. Madame doesn’t let her comb her hair or spend some private time in the bathroom. When the guests come, she is displayed as a new “pet” and even one of the guests kisses her saying “I’ve never kissed a black girl before”. These all become highly humiliating to Diouana and she refuses to work. Then, Madame refuses to “feed” her. The cycle goes like this and we see Diouana is running away from the reality day by day.

She turns back to her dreams and memories with her boyfriend in Dakar. She always speaks to us, but not to the family. She tells how her expectations became twisted, how she feels alone and captured. When a letter comes from Diouana’s mother, the family has an attempt to write an answer in the name of Diouana. As we can see from here, the whites think, speak, feel, and even eat instead of blacks. 

As Diouana loses her grasp of reality, her mental breakdown occurs. She refuses the money which was given by Monsieur and she prepares her suitcase. As we think where she can go with her suitcase, but without any money, we see a woman in the bathtub who was dead. Diouana has apparently slit her own throat since it was too much for her to bear. This is very heartbreaking that we encounter a small portion of a woman’s life and she couldn’t take what has been done to her. It’s even more damaging and discouraging that we know this is only an example of how millions of people experience this kind of treatment every single day.

A Past Woven With Guilt

After Diouana’s death, Monsieur takes the money and the suitcase with him, then he goes to Dakar to find Diouana’s mother. When he finds her, she doesn’t accept the money and he leaves the suitcase there. Then, the boy finds the mask which Diouana has bought from him and he wears it. He keeps following Monsieur until he reaches his car, like a nightmare. The mask was only an item for the French family which they can show off with, yet it’s the exact representative of the African identity for black people. It was the sign of oppression, systematic racism and even murders that have been performed for years and as we see with this boy with a mask, this guilty past never ceases to follow wrongdoers.  

Black Girl marks a specific point in film history. Even after 54 years of existence, the movie still feels contemporary since the world still tries to deal with the same problems. With increasing consciousness in the world, both black and white people are now able to reject this system of racism and systematic cruelty. There are contemporary movies about racism, we see great movements all around the world and we hope that things will really change this time. There are still lots of things to mend and every country which has a colonizer past should face its history and take action accordingly. The world has been a hard place to live in for many people for many centuries but now it’s in our hands to pave the way for change.

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