in Criterion Month

Black Girl (1966)

“For me, France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom and my bedroom.” Those lamentations of Diouana (M’Bissine Thérèse Diop) resonate in the entirely new context of 2020, as we’ve all been sheltering in place for more than four months now. Personally, this COVID mess started shortly after I got my own apartment for the first time and started trying to branch out and become a better person. Instead, a global pandemic and a bridge failing have left me feeling as isolated as I’ve ever been, my worst fears of living alone not only realized, but exceeded far more than I had thought possible. I wasn’t expecting to find a movie that so completely captured this vibe, but the 1966 French/Senegalese film Black Girl might just be the film for this moment.

The film begins with a young Senegalese woman, Diouana, arriving in France, where she is to work for a white family as a nanny. While we later see that her employer can afford to fly to and from Senegal, Diouana has taken a ship. As she moves through the crowd, she wonders if someone will even be there to pick her up. Indeed, “monsieur” (Robert Fontaine) is waiting, but he doesn’t say much, nor does he offer to carry her luggage or open the door for her when they get to his car. They go straight to the family’s home and “madame” (Anne-Marie Jelinek) coldly shows Diouana her bedroom, complete with a beautiful view of the French Riviera. But things feel very strange for Diouana, who never sees the children and is instead tasked with being the household cook and maid. She’s forced to wonder what exactly her situation is, and if she’ll ever get to see the France that exists outside of this one apartment.

Occasionally, we’re given glimpses into Diouana’s life back in Senegal, where she grew up in a very poor village outside of the capital, Dakar. Like many of the people in her village, Diouana cannot read or write, so she’s forced to go into the city and roam around looking for work. Eventually she learns of a curb were women looking for domestic work congregate, and starts waiting there for an opportunity to show itself. And it does: one day madame comes looking for a servant and she selects Diouana because she’s the only one who didn’t immediately start crowding in front of her. Diouana is so grateful for the job she gives her new employers a mask she bought from one of the boys in her village, a token which the family proudly displays among other African masks they have. Her employers already have cooks and maids, Diouana’s job is only to look after the three children: going on walks, taking them to school, things like that. It seems like a great gig. So when the family returns to France and invites her to join them, Diouana is overjoyed and immediately accepts, unable to resist what she dreams of as a new, luxurious life.

But in the present, Diouana’s fantasies begin to feel increasingly like an impossibility. When her employers leave, they lock Diouana in the apartment. Every morning, she dresses up in glamorous clothes and heels, hoping to get to see more of her new home. This frustrates madame, who eventually forces her to wear an apron. Monsieur seems a bit more sensitive, but he decides to avoid Diouana so he doesn’t have to deal with his guilt. The only things she ever sees are those four rooms she’s supposed to keep clean. Now, when Diouana gazes out her window at night, that beautiful view is gone. It’s been replaced with an abyss; the black hole of the unknown that surrounds her. One day, her employers have a dinner party to show off Diouana’s “authentic Afican cooking” where one of the guests forces himself on her because he’s “never kissed a Black girl before.” Later, when the guests worry about speaking in front of Diouana, madame and monsieur assure them that she can’t speak French and that she takes orders intuitively. And still the children are nowhere to be seen. Is there any hope for this poor woman?

Senegal gained its independence in 1960, just six years before Black Girl was released. (As an aside, for the country’s 50th anniversary of independence in 2010, they dedicated this awesome monument, the tallest in Africa, which I hadn’t seen before and thought you’d like to see too). At this time, author Ousmane Sembène realized his works were only being read by the educated elite, and grew interested in cinema as a way to reach a broader audience and affect greater social change. After producing some short films, Black Girl was Sembène’s first feature and is based on one of his short stories. It proved to be a hit, becoming the first Sub-Saharan African film by an African filmmaker to receive international attention and winning the director the Prix Jean Vigo (an award named for the L’Atalante guy). This success allowed Sembène to start making films in his native Wolof language, and he went on to use his position as the face of Senegalese cinema to continue telling stories about colonialism and the bourgeoisie until his death in 2007.

It was a smart and moving decision to make a movie about contemporary prejudice and inequality. After all, in film and elsewhere, it’s always been easier to tell stories that pretend intolerance was a problem that’s already been solved. It’s clear that Diouana’s employers think themselves woke, metropolitan, liberal people. After all, they worked in Africa! They created jobs! They gave someone an opportunity to come to their country and live in their home! I’m sure they’d argue they’re paying her well, too. But Sembène is relentless in his depiction of the toll all their ignorance and exploitative behaviors take on Diouana’s mental state. While the camera never leaves the apartment in France, Diouana is almost always outside in Dakar, a strong indicator of the price her new “opportunity” will ask her to pay.

This is a powerful movie about race, but I have to return to the claustrophobic aspect of it. Whether you consider your home a gilded cage or a prison cell, after more than four months, we can all agree being stuck there is miserable. Then I see people posting on social media about their quarantine accomplishments – this guy lost 50 pounds, this woman built a patio, this couple became amazing bakers and cooked every meal every day – and feel even worse. Black Girl helped me remember my many, many privileges. Compared to Diouana I have so much freedom. I’m lucky enough to have stayed employed this entire time and been able to work comfortably from home. I’m lucky enough to be able to afford my expenses and not face eviction like so many people are right now. I’m lucky enough to have a family that checks in on me and friends who will hold me accountable if I don’t post my Criterion Month reviews on time. Mostly I try remind myself that with everything going on, it’s OK to admit its taken a toll on my mental health. These are trying times and it’s perfectly reasonable to feel tired. And at least I don’t live with a couple of racists who suckered me into their home so I could clean their bathroom every day.