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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Mask Is Mine

Photo courtesy Janus Films.

By Ashley Clark

Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966), based upon the director’s own short story, charts the fortunes of an optimistic young Senegalese woman, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), who leaves her nation’s capital of Dakar to work for a bourgeois white family in a small town adjacent to the picturesque French Riviera.

Widely considered the first-ever feature film made in Africa by a black African director, this absorbing 64-minute drama, shot in stark monochromatic tones, resonates equally as a vivid character study and an incisive commentary on the pernicious inequalities of postcolonial power relations between cultures. (Senegal became fully independent from France in 1960, six years before Black Girl, and three before Sembène’s debut short film, the equally unsentimental Borom Sarret, about the travails of a luckless wagoner. They screen together at BAMcinématek from May 18—24.) This postcolonial complexity is reflected in Black Girl’s production history: its hyper-critical screenplay was the only one ever rejected for production funding by the then-head of the French Ministry of Cooperation’s Bureau de Cinema—the key funding body for Francophone African cinema—on subject matter alone. Sembène invented the term “mégotage” (cigarette-butt cinema) to describe the lengths to which African filmmakers went to scrabble together budgets.

Black Girl opens with the image of a ship approaching shore, accompanied by an ominous sound collage of viciously whipping winds and the vessel’s demonically blaring horn—by the time Diouana emerges, a mood of unease has been conjured; it does not dissipate over the next hour. In her new home, Diouana is treated with brusque tolerance by her hosts, but their hospitality soon gives way to open hostility from the icy matriarch (Anne-Marie Jelinck), and indifference from her husband (Robert Fontaine), an ostensibly nice guy who fails to offer Diouana the necessary support as she slides inexorably into depression.

Photo courtesy Janus Films
Having been promised work looking after her hosts’ children, Diouana is instead restricted to grinding menial chores—the ritualistic rigors of which are captured largely in clinical mid-shot by Sembène’s camera—and subjected to open racism. In a grim, reverse spin on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the mother is bent on styling Diouana to reflect her view of how the ideal postcolonial subject should appear: frowsy, supplicant, joyless—“You’re not going to a party,” she tells Diouana, handing her an apron to replace her poignantly effervescent uniform of a dress and high heels.

Diouana is, unquestionably, a victim, but she is no mere blank. For one, she is vibrantly incarnated by non-professional actress Diop, who was recommended to Sembène by a photographer friend. (A seamstress by trade, Diop made the majority of her own costumes.) When the director judiciously cuts to screen-filling close-ups of her plaintive, open face—tears in her eyes, eyes to the sky—her pain registers like a punch to the gut. Moreover, Sembène, already the author of four successful novels by the time he made Black Girl, writes for Diouana a poetic internal monologue, through which she articulates her mounting frustrations with the pinched, sad world she inhabits: “What am I here? … Where are the people who live in this country?”

Meanwhile, a series of moving, interstitial flashbacks illustrate Diouana’s life in Dakar, including her putative romance with a young student (Momar Nar Sene), and her excitement at being specifically selected by the mother, a one-time Dakar resident, to work in France. Diouana’s anticipation of a new life prefigures the dreams of the young Senegalese couple in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s punky, colorful Touki Bouki (1973), another classic African film about postcolonial purgatory.

Though Black Girl traffics in bracing realism, it carries a powerful symbolic charge, embodied most clearly in the form of the traditional African mask which the naive Diouana casually gifts to her new employers on her first day. As the mask gazes impassively from its lofty perch in the living room, it seems to haunt the drab room with pre-independence ghosts, as well as evoking Frantz Fanon’s metaphor of the “mask” black people must wear in order to thrive in a white world. Eventually, it becomes the object through which Diouana’s eventual resistance is channelled. Finally, in the film’s thrilling, spine-tingling coda, the mask, now in new hands, is reconfigured as an anti-assimilationist totem, thrumming with the spirit of pro-African, anti-colonial resistance. In these last moments, a downbeat saga is transformed into a transcendent, defiant howl of hope.

Ashley Clark is a freelance film journalist and film programmer from London, based in New York. He writes for Sight & Sound and VICE, among others; and wrote the book Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (The Critical Press). He curated the BAMcinématek series Space is the Place: Afrofuturism on Film and Behind The Mask: Bamboozled in Focus (both in 2015). Follow him on Twitter @_Ash_Clark.

Reprinted from April 2016 BAMbill.

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