Qualities of a Black Girl

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Black Girl: An Exploration of Colonialism and Post-Colonial Identity

Black Girl depicts the narrative of a Senegalese girl who longs for a better life in France; but, upon arrival, she encounters additional tyranny from her employer, causing her to value her identity and African background. The film's primary themes include colonialism, racism, and post-colonial identity. The film highlights the element of colonialism that has had a profound impact on West African film history. Colonialism increased the perception that the West is superior to Africa, a notion that the film industry strives to negate through a process of "decolonizing the mind".

Formal Qualities of a Black Girl (Cinematography, Music, and Editing)

Black Girl is characterized by comedy and satire, which appear in the form of wit, exaggeration and mockery so as to help disapprove and uncover people’s folly in the context of important issues. Humor is present in the film’s cinematography, music, and editing. The film’s visual composition explores an apparent black and white contrast. The semantic and formal basis of the film is provided by the film’s black and white cinematography. Christian Lacoste directed the film’s picture-making process, whereby he cleverly attributed the filmic conformation of the black and white contrast, supplementing the color theme of the film. For instance, black and white contrast is visually represented by Diouana, who wears a white dress with black dots and carries a black suitcase; further, the apartment theme color is black and white. Moreover, the whiskey consumed by the Frenchmen carries the label “Black and White”. Additionally, the black and white contrast is brought out through music, when African music alternates with the Western one throughout the film. The contrast is enhanced further when the camera focuses on Diouana’s still body while in the white bathtub. Further, the editing of the film brought out the black and white contrast by tying together the mask and the boy with the faces of other Africans who follow the white man on the basis of his looks, indicating that the existing cultural and class conflict cannot be resolved by a single person, but rather requires a collective will of the African people.

Plot and Themes

Black Girl is a 1966 French-Senegalese film by a Senegalese director, Ousmane Sembene. The film’s main character, a black girl from Senegal whose name is Diouana, got employed as a governess to a white French couple in Dakar, Senegal. Diouana anticipates for a lavish lifestyle in France as the family moves from Dakar to Antibes, south of France. Diouana’s expectations disappear as the French couple starts abusing her; reducing her from a nanny to a maid by adding her more house chores of regular cleaning and cooking for the family and their friends. Diouana is relentlessly ill-treated and reminded of her race; therefore, shuttering her imagination to better times in France. At the end she gives up and commits suicide due to despair.

Several themes emerge from Black Girl, amongst them racism, colonialism, and post-colonial identity; which are enhanced through the African mask that Diouana gives to her employer on her leading day of work. Racism is repeatedly shown when Diouana’s employer keeps on retelling her of her racial identity by involving her in a series of intensified battles, ridicule, and overburdening her with tedious house tasks. Sembene brings out the theme of post-colonial identity when he puts both Diouana and her employers in a parallel position where the employer’s wife is purposefully bored and ill-talks to her husband because of the low life they lived in Antibes as compared to Dakar where they were more powerful and stood better chances of living in a larger apartment and could afford more servants. The theme of colonialism is also present when Diouana is restricted by her employer from the freedom to dress as she wants or to discover France. Another illustration is related to the African mask that Diouana gave to the employer, when in Dakar it was embraced and put together among other wall hangings unlike in France where it hang all by itself on the apartment wall. The film reinforces the idea that during colonialism, Africans were valued by the colonizers for the cheap labor, enhancing the colonizers’ quality of life. However, after independence, Africans were of no value to their former colonizers since they had freedoms and rights that protected them against being abused by the Whites; hence, they were on their own and the Whites no longer embraced them, which is symbolically expressed in the image of the African mask.

Flashbacks and Cross-cutting

Diouana’s journey from Senegal to France is explained through a series of flashbacks as well as scenes of the film’s present. Diouana’s interior monologues, which are presented through a narrative voice, are used in bringing out the flashbacks. The escalation of ridicule by Diouana’s employer drove her to memories of her lifestyle back in Senegal thus a constant reminder of poverty and illiteracy levels, though there was more freedom in Senegal. The flashbacks are used to symbolize the differences in lifestyles for Diouana while living in Senegal and in France, thus displaying the contrast between her imagination in Senegal and her current lifestyle in France. Cross-cutting was displayed when scenes of Diouana, the main character, appeared simultaneously in the film as she was working for the couple both in Dakar and at the same time while working in Antibes, France. Cross cutting is used to bring out the contrast between Diouana’s expectations of life in France and the reality that life was better in Africa.

Relation to the Readings

Dovey postulates that African cinema to a large extent focuses on political and social themes, whereby it explores the conflicts between the modern times and the traditional past (Dovey 119). African filmmakers often begin by exploring the neocolonial conditions experienced in African societies. Sembene, the film’s director, strives to give back African history by focusing on the conflict between the Senegalese and the French, which eventually leads to the decolonization of the mind. The conflict is demonstrated through a series of flashbacks, where Diouana imagines better life in France but on arriving in France, she experiences more oppression, bringing her to the realization that her perception of the French, which she had gained during the colonization era was faulty, as the conditions faced by her in France taught her that life was better in Africa. According to Genova, African filmmakers explore such themes as colonialism and racism to build on the history of Africans, which is characterized by oppression from white colonizers and the fight for freedom (Genova 145). The character of Diouana is used to bring out the aspect of the colonization of the mind and the subsequent process of decolonization.

How the film addresses postcolonial West Africa

The film portrays independence in West Africa as a big blow to the colonialists in that they lived a less influential life within their own country. The wooden mask symbolizes the shift in power positions and its African identity to their colonists. During African colonial period, the colonists enjoyed power over the Africans; hence, they valued them since they heavily relied on them in terms of labor and other resources, which explains why Diouana’s employer placed the mask amongst other valuables while in Africa. However, after independence, the Africans held the power positions, reducing the colonialists to their subjects, a factor that made the colonialists to lose their value in the eyes of Africans; thus totally separating themselves and their interests from Africa.

Anti-colonial political projects openly contest and disrupt the ultimate colonial political demands. Black Girl exposes the negative effects of colonialism by Frenchmen to the Senegalese; for example, in the aspect of abuse and mistreatment of Diouana. This film therefore advocates for disruption of advancements to colonial demands by the French colonists towards the Senegalese. The film thus relates to the anti-colonial political project as it demonstrates the negative effects of colonialism, including oppression by the Whites and the lack of freedom to explore one’s world as depicted by Diouana while in France. Further, the anti-colonial political project advocated for the use of force in acquiring freedom from the colonial oppressors. Similarly, when Diouana learns of her identity and the importance of embracing it, she begins engaging with her employer in fights so that she could reclaim the mask, which mirrors the Africans’ fight for freedom.

How does the film reflect postcolonial African filmmakers’ shared objective of “decolonizing the mind”?

Black Girl’s major objective was to educate the African audience that Africa is not inferior to the West since it gives one freedom and peace that Africans cannot access in the white-dominated nations. The film passes the message of decolonizing the mind through showing scenes where Diouana regrets leaving Africa since back there she had freedom to socialize and she was treated better by her employer unlike in France. Similar to Black Girl, the post-colonial filmmakers seek to decolonize the mind by demonstrating the oppression that Africans endure in the hands of the White men, which they could not face if they embraced their identity and stayed in Africa. Diouana committed suicide even after “decolonizing her mind” since it was too late for her to admit the fact that she would end up in her motherland after years of slavery and ridicule. Death here symbolizes end of the colonial era by the French over the Senegalese. Further, death symbolized a new dawn of independence for the African nation as well as a new way of thinking regarding race and white supremacy. Black Girl teaches us that colonialism is all in the mind of an individual, as clearly shown by the main character Diouana; who is all convinced that despite Senegal gaining independence over the French, she can only get a better life in the foreign land away from home.

The film comprised of clear linear image fragmentation of the African past and present cultural affairs that no stranger could deliver; hence creating a narrative that time unfolded in a linear fashion of editing. Black Girl shows a linear fashion of editing running from when Diouana and her French bosses lived in Dakar then shifted to Antibes and even when the mask is returned to the boy in Senegal by the husband.

Touki bookie is another 1973 film by Sembene about post-colonial agony, in which he also uses African music to highlight the 'black and white' contrast between character’s races. This is echoed in the scene of Black Girl with the color theme being black and white, whereby the background, the girl’s dress, and the wine drank by the French carried the black and white colour theme.

“Everyone would rather be in Paris”

Diouana’s thoughts about a better life in France relate well with the reading ‘Everyone would rather be in Paris’ because of the shared belief that life is much more promising in western countries rather than at home in Africa (Livia 393). These ideas were constructed by the colonists, who seemed superior in the judgments of the Africans during the colonial era and these thoughts have been carried all along in the minds of colonized Africans like Diouana who coveted life in the French nation.

Conclusion

Black Girl extensively explores the theme of colonialism by focusing on its effect on the Africans, whereby colonialism led to a common belief among the Africans that the Whites were superior. The theme of colonialism has significantly influenced West African film history, where filmmakers constantly seek to promote a process of decolonizing the mind by making films that contrast the colonial and post-colonial era in Africa. Diouana is seen as a symbol of decolonization, whereby she gains freedom from the oppression of the French employer after embracing her identity.

Works Cited

Dovey, Lindiwe. African film and literature : adapting violence to the screen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Print.

Genova, James E. Cinema and development in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. Print.

Livia, Anna. "Everyone Would Rather Be in Paris." VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY-QUARTERLY- 16.4 (2003): 393-406.

April 06, 2023
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2013

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