Blu-Ray Review – Black Girl
Ousmane Sembène is considered by many to be the father of African cinema. A political activist, author, and filmmaker, the Senegalese Sembène made it his life’s mission to tell distinct African stories without white European influence (Senegal was once a French occupied territory). In collaboration with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, The Criterion Collection has restored Sembène’s feature-length debut, Black Girl (1966, Spine #852) in a fancy new blu ray release. So let’s dive in and see what we’ve got.
Black Girl tells the story of a young Senegalese woman named Diouana (Mbissine Therese Diop) who travels to France to work as a servant to a white French couple (Robert Fontaine, Anne-Marie Jelinek). At first, Diouana takes her trip with optimism, thinking that her primary duties would be taking care of the couple’s children. That optimism quickly turns to despair as Diouana is immediately put to work, cooking and cleaning and doing everything the couple orders her to do. She’s treated more like a slave than a person, never allowed to travel around France and subjected to constant verbal abuse by Madame (Jelinek) while Monsieur (Fontaine) barely even notices her. She fantasizes about her home country before she left, even the possibility of a romance. But her desperation for money snaps her back to reality. Things start to fall apart when Diouana is the subject of racism by the couple’s dinner guests. As the tension mounts and Diouana’s insubordination escalates, the narrative takes a tragic and shocking turn that may be disturbing, but sadly isn’t surprising.
Sembène is very blunt with the message he’s conveying here. He puts the themes of racism, colonialism, and economic inequality front and center. The French influence is seen everywhere. The black and white photography, the editing choices, the performances by non professional actors, and the location shooting all call to mind the style of the French New Wave. While the story is very much from an African perspective, the language spoken throughout is French – even Diouana’s interior narration is done this way. Sembène’s direction is to the point, placing the camera often in middle to wide shots, only inserting a few select close ups during emotionally charged moments. Diop’s performance is perfectly understated, never going broad to generate an emotion.
Black Girl feels like a combination of the French New Wave, Italian Neo-realism, and something completely unique. Sembène’s work is distinctive and personal. This film deserves to be seen by more people, and Criterion should be commended for adding it into their collection.
The new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution from the original 35mm negative. There are a few imperfections – some fine hairs that are noticeable – but overall the image looks great. The high contrast photography makes clear distinction between dark and light, which only helps to highlight the themes being conveyed.
The monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm original soundtrack negative. It does sound a little thin – we don’t get the fullness that comes with more low-end. But this is indicative of low budget productions. Compare the sound quality to many French New Wave or neo-realist films and there won’t be much that differentiates them. There are no noticeable hisses, pops, or hums, and the dialogue came through nice and clear.
It’s become almost like a broken record the way Criterion has been able to load their disks with exceptional supplemental material. This release, once again, is no different. I knew very little about Ousmane Sembene, but after watching the film and going through the bonus features, I’m now interested in exploring more of his work. We get interviews with Senegalese film scholars Manthia Diawara and Samba Gadjigo, both of whom trace Sembène’s journey from fighting for the French Resistance in WWII, working on the French docks, becoming a political activist, teaching himself how to read and write, his time as an author and finally settling as a filmmaker. We also get an interview with Mbissine Therese Diop, who talks about her time making Black Girl, including making her own dresses and working with Sembène as a non-trained actor.
There are other smaller material, such as the film’s trailer, an unused color sequence, and a brief interview with Sembène after winning the Prix Jean Vigo award. The written piece by critic Ashley Clark (in the insert) is informative but goes over much of what was already covered in the interviews. The big highlight of the bonus material is Sembène’s first directorial effort, the short Borom sarret (1963). Not only do we get a restored version of the short, it also comes with a featurette discussing its historical significance. If that weren’t enough, we also get the hour long documentary, Sembène: The Making of African Cinema (1994), an extensive interview with Sembène as he discusses his upbringing, his influences, and his philosophies with students and colleagues (including filmmaker John Singleton). While all the additional pieces are good to great, Borom sarret and Sembène: The Making of African Cinema are the two high points of this release.
From the title film to all the supplemental material, this release of Black Girl is best enjoyed as one whole piece instead of separate parts. They all work in conjunction with one another, painting a picture of African cinema and the filmmaker who started it out of sheer will. The power of cinema is in seeing the world from another person’s perspective, and for anyone interested, this would be a good place to start.