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TSPDT 2013: Black Girl

Posted by martinteller on April 23, 2013

Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) is a young Senegalese woman who needs a job.  She gets employed as a nanny for a white couple (Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine) staying in Dakar.  They offer to keep her on and fly her back to their home in France.  But when she arrives, she’s stunned to discover that the children aren’t even there and she’s expected to perform as a maid and a cook.  Furthermore, the mistress of the house has developed a much more condescending and cold attitude towards her.  Diouana came to France to look after the children, go shopping, and expand her horizons.  Instead, she’s cooped up in an apartment cleaning the couple’s toilets and making native dishes to impress their friends.

Sembene’s first feature is barely feature-length at 55 minutes, and rather blunt in its themes and symbolism.  But it’s effective and compelling nonetheless.  Diouana has little voice in this household, but her frustration is expressed through interior monologue.  Senegal may be independent, but the colonial attitudes still linger.  Back on their home turf, the white French feel more at ease treating Diouana almost as a slave… at the very least, they are completely oblivious to her humanity and desires.

The use of flashbacks and voiceover and emphasis on minor action gives the film a New Wave flavor.  Some of the camerawork is a little crude, but for a first feature — in fact, reportedly the first feature made by a black African — it’s generally pretty impressive.  Diop is an amateur who never performed in any other films, but her facial expressions speak volumes about her disappointment and anger.  I won’t spoil the ending (and if you’re sensitive to spoilers, don’t read Ebert’s review) but it’s a strong moment followed by an appropriate coda.  Again, the movie isn’t terribly subtle, but I liked it.  Rating: Very Good (82)


Also on the disc, a short by Sembene, Borom Sarret.  In it, a man (Ly Abdoulay) drives a horse-drawn wagon, picking up passengers, many of whom are unable to pay.  If Black Girl has a New Wave vibe, this feels more neo-realist, like a Senegalese Bicycle Thieves.  It’s a portrait of the different challenges facing Senegal’s poor, struggling just to buy food or bury their dead children.  It’s a fine piece as well, but also a little bit on the simplistic and underdeveloped side.  Rating: Good (78)

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