The Father of African Cinema’s Debut Still Hits Hard. Plus: Denis on Rivette


Formally spartan, Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966) is dense with cool fury. Clocking in at just an hour, the film, about a young Senegalese woman who toils as a cook and maid for a white bourgeois French family, excoriates the legacy of a century of colonial rule. Within the walls of the small apartment where most of the story unfolds, a whole world opens up, quite literally so: Told almost entirely from its protagonist’s point of view, Black Girl, Sembène’s debut feature, was the first sub-Saharan African film to play for audiences around the globe. Yet five decades after its premiere, the movie, like all of Sembène’s work, remains too little seen — and screened. Remedying this lapse, BAMcinématek presents a new 4K restoration for a week-long run.

Premiering six years after Senegal gained its independence from France, Black Girl unsparingly depicts the still-tight grip of the former subjugators. First seen disembarking from an ocean liner with a single suitcase, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) has traveled to the French Riviera to work for the blancs identified only as Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) and Monsieur (Robert Fontaine); flashbacks reveal that she was earlier employed by the couple in Dakar to care for their three young children. In France, however, Diouana is demoted from governess — the kids are nowhere in sight — to de facto slave. (The film’s original French title, La Noire de…, literally translated as “The Black Girl From…” or “The Black Girl of…,” is damningly ambiguous: That of could signify that she is someone’s personal property.) Confined to her bosses’ Antibes flat, Diouana says of her plight: “For me, France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, and my bedroom,” her remarks mostly rendered as interior monologue (which is voiced by Toto Bissainthe; Jelinek and Fontaine are also dubbed).

Diouana must endure both the petty tyranny of Madame, who demands that the servant take off her chic polka-dot dress while mopping (“You’re not going to a party!”), and the racism of her employers’ lunch guests. “Their independence has made them less natural,” one declares after Diouana, a few feet away, has ladled out the main course. Sembène’s heroine stages a few insurrectionary acts before deciding on her ultimate escape — a scene that throws the film’s monochrome palette into starkest, bleakest relief and that lands with the clean impact of a fist to the face.

The force and assuredness of Black Girl, which Sembène adapted from his own 1962 short story, may be rooted in the fact that its maker, born in southern Senegal in 1923, was in his forties when shooting commenced — as did, more or less, his second career. Sembène published his first novel, Le Docker Noir, based on his own experiences as a longshoreman (and fervent Marxist) in Marseille, in 1956, and was well established as a writer by the time he enrolled in film school in Moscow, in 1961. Returning to Senegal the following year, he made his first short, Borom Sarett (1963), a neorealist tale about a cart driver in Dakar that sharply comments on the capital city’s class divisions. (The twenty-minute film also screens in a new 4K restoration at BAM.)

Diouana in Black Girl is a foremother of the redoubtable women on whom several of Sembène’s films are centered, notably his final two, Faat Kiné (2001) and Moolaadé (2004), the latter unquestionably the most engaging movie to address female circumcision in West Africa. Twelve years ago, I had the good fortune to interview Sembène when he was in town on the occasion of Moolaadé‘s New York Film Festival screenings. Ever stately — he had been described to me, accurately, by a French colleague as a “grand seigneur” — the man known as the Father of African Cinema sat with his trademark pipe in hand. (In an uncredited role as a letter writer in Black Girl, the director is immediately recognizable as he puffs away.) “I think I’ve inherited the traditional perception of artist in my society: an individual who raises issues,” he told me. “I want to make you aware of the struggle we are having in Africa. My job is to speak to my society.” Sembène died, at the age of 84, in Dakar in 2007, never once failing to fulfill that mission.

The abiding themes and concerns of another cinema master are the focus of Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman (1990), screening at FIAF on May 24. Directed by Claire Denis, who had assisted Rivette during the making of his post-’68 magnum opus Out 1 (1971), for the revered French TV series Cinema of Our Time, this thoroughly absorbing portrait features the auteur in a series of wide-ranging discussions throughout Paris with film critic Serge Daney. Dressed in a gray suit that seems at least two sizes too big for his slight frame, Rivette, in his early sixties at the time, recounts his delight at the correspondence he received from young women moved by Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974). The Nouvelle Vague co-founder, we learn, renowned for his voracious cinephilia, could not stomach certain titles: “The only films I can’t watch are the ones I’ve made.” Rivette, who passed away in January, saw mysteries everywhere and created thrillingly enigmatic movies. But in Denis’s documentary, the man himself, at once diffident and forthright, is exceptionally lucid.

Black Girl

Written and directed

by Ousmane Sembène

Janus Films

BAMcinématek, May 18–24

Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman

Directed by Claire Denis

French Institute Alliance Française

May 24