Reel Classics | Black Girl (1966)

by Tim Gordon

All month long during Black History Month, we will select 28 films that are essential to the Black experience in cinema. Up next is the first film by an African filmmaker to receive international attention, the 1966 French-Senegalese drama, Black Girl.

The film centers on Diouana, a young Senegalese woman who moves from Senegal to France to work for a French couple. Under the impression that while In France, she dreams of a new cosmopolitan lifestyle, as she works as a nanny. However, her dreams are dashed as Diouana experiences harsh treatment from the couple, who force her to work as a servant. She becomes increasingly aware of her constrained and isolated situation and starts to question her life in France.

Black Girl was based on a short story from Sembène’s 1962 collection Voltaique, which was in turn inspired by a real-life incident. In his directorial debut, Sengelense filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s story created a powerful impression – much later. Upon its release it was poorly received, only to later be revered as a classic of world cinema.

Many of the themes that the film addresses, including the effects colonialism and racism in Africa and Europe, are represented by the recurring appearance of an African mask that Diouana gives to her employers on her first day of work at the house in Dakar. Throughout the film, the mask takes on many different meanings, which include a new home, a symbol of unity and identity, but for non-Africans, it is only a ‘souvenir.”

In combination with the boy, these scenes continue to be a powerful testimony of Sembène’s brilliance that came to be a classic in African scene cinema.

Black Girl is streaming on Max.