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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Freedom's Just Another Word
by Donald Levit

Six years after his country’s 1960 independence and edited to fifty-five-minute “short” length to meet registration requirements for the National Center of French Cinema, Black Girl/La noire de . . . brought Ousmane Sembène to international cinema prominence.

4K-restored to its original hour-and-five-minutes with some previously excised color frames rendered in b&w, this indictment that Martin Scorsese termed “astonishing, ferocious, haunting” is not unartistically blatant in reflecting its maker’s politics. An autodidact former manual laborer, Marseilles dockworker, union organizer and successful poetry and prose writer who turned late to cinema and was confirmed in Marxist leanings at the Moscow Gorky Film Studio, the scriptwriter-director insisted on film as “a political instrument of action” more accessible than print to his prevailingly illiterate countrymen.

Much of the output of this sub-Saharan “African cinema’s founding father” centers on women -- at his death in 2007, he had been married to American Carrie Moore for thirty-three years -- who, he felt, “play themselves, their own roles.” The overarching view, however, is not that of men dominating women but of the post-colonial legacy of European ownership, the frame of mind that still reigns and maims both ex-colonized and -colonizer. Thus, the brainwashed poor and the newly powerful pompous who ape former masters, the free but still oppressed and the uncomprehending Europeans who continue to condescend and take advantage.

The restored feature is preceded by one of the filmmaker’s earlier shorts, eighteen-minute 1963 Borom Sarett/Le charretier/The Waggoner, in which a dirt-poor good-hearted carter is bamboozled of virtually his all by African life and officialdom and, in some unspecified ambiguous sexually suggestive way, saved by his silent wife.

Equally resorting to voiceover and irony in treating the have-and-have-not gap, Black Girl is even more despairing in probing the psychological damage and violence that Franz Fanon had also analyzed. As with the Hemingway prose style when it works, tension is created in the deadpan documentary-ish surface laid over great unstated emotion. Employing amateur actors for the simplicity of storyline out of the griot, or village Homer teller/singer of tales, the film depicts displacement (although its Mediterranean Riviera was actually filmed entirely in Dakar). Against the bulge of Africa shantytown and ritzy expat upper city, center action occurs in Antibes. Illiterate Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) speaks Wolof though not French, so her employers’ circle assume she understands only instinctively, “like an animal.” Alone on the Continent, she withdraws into herself -- voiceovers (by Toto Bissainthe) are her unsaid thoughts rather than exposition for the viewer -- and flashbacks and two photos illustrate how the young woman came to be the housemaid, cook, cleaning woman and, in her own thoughts, “slave” of bickering Madame and Monsieur (Anne-Marie Jelinck and Robert Fontaine).

Advised to hang around a square seeking employment, she had been hired as governess for the couple’s young Philippe, Sophie and Damien and subsequently invited to join the family on their return to the Mother Country. Fed with stories and dreams of pretty shops and goods and a richer life, she arrives to find the children away for an extended period and, herself isolated by language, culture and late pay, ordered about by the now-unpleasant Madame while laid-back husband Henri is clueless. Treated unsympathetically and accused of ungratefulness, the young woman retreats into her disillusioned interior. More visible apart in this white world though also more stubborn and consciously rebellious, she is paradoxically of the tribe of contemporary Pistoia-to-Rome displaced model-actress Adriana of I Knew Her Well.

The pessimistic take is that both sides in Black Girl are doomed forever to exist side by side in mutual misunderstanding.

Diouana’s mother and neighbors and a local teacher (Sembène) exhibit the daughter’s same pride that Monsieur will never comprehend. Now worn by a township boy (Ibrahima Boy), her recurrent fifty-cent native mask stares in symbol of that vast gulf of separation and of unfathomable grief.

(Released by Janus Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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