Monday, November 14, 2016

Black/White: a video essay on Black Girl


Here is my first video essay on my personal YouTube/Vimeo channels since May. Appropriately enough it has a political subject, focused as it is on the work of Ousmane Sembene, the great Senegalese filmmaker sometimes dubbed "the father of African cinema." I explore how his first feature film's aesthetic and polemical qualities intertwine.


On its fiftieth anniversary, Black Girl (aka La Noire de...) is widely considered the first sub-Saharan African film by a sub-Saharan African filmmaker. As one would expect, much of the film takes place in Dakar, Senegal (where writer/director Ousmane Sembene was from). However, two-thirds of the film takes place in France, where the main character Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) has traveled to work as a domestic servant for a French couple. This film, then, offers a (cinematically) unfamiliar window into a familiar milieu, as we watch the interactions of a typical bourgeois domestic scene - an unhappy wife, an indifferent husband - through the eyes of an outsider to it. In these sequences, Sembene designs a world defined by a heavy contrast between the colors black and white - not just obviously in the skin tones of the actors, but through clothing, decor, even food. It's tempting to read the film entirely through this lens of sharp racial contrast but as this video demonstrates, that's only half the story.

Black Girl's most important contrast is not between black and white in France, but between that very stark French juxtaposition, and the more subtle shading in Senegal. What applies to form applies to content as well: the rigidity of Diouana's life in Antibes is not matched by the more relaxed events and performance shown in the Dakar flashbacks. Through this larger contrast, and also be freely cutting across time and space to analyze these different lifestyles side by side (as well as ending back in Africa, on the face of a little boy who accompanied Diouana in some of the earlier scenes), Sembene discourages us from placing the European part of the story as the ascension of a hierarchy, the inevitable outcome of Diouana's situation. Instead, we are encouraged to regard the sharp black/white contrast of the European scenes, and the stark racial and economic power dynamics which accompany them, within a larger context - and then to reject it.

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