black girl ousmane sembene


“Through contemporary eyes, the static shots and urban milieus of Black Girl seem to solidify Sembène’s filmmaking as an aesthetic neighbor to the emotionally-walloping neorealism of the Italian De Sica. Black Girl may not evoke the immediate adoration of something as universally beloved as De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, although the latter film’s deft interweaving of personal-is-political social commentary with the rueful, everyday messiness of the lives of the marginalized working class began a storytelling tradition that is gloriously carried on by Sembène. Black Girl has all the skillful stylistic simplicity of your typical piece of neorealism but also packs a sharper bite and it’s electrifying to watch Sembène craft a twisty drama with the piano-chord tautness of a thriller that is nonetheless coated in such a rare and wryly intimate form of humanity.”


50 years after its debut, a restored version of Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène’s first film Black Girl is now available from the @criterioncollection. Fresh Air critic at-large John Powers says:

“We can all name movies that take place in Africa – from the many adventures of Tarzan to Oscar winning hits like Out of Africa – but these are not movies that actually come out of Africa.  They were made by outsiders looking in.  In fact, I’d wager that most Westerners have never seen an African story filmed from the inside.

There’s no better way to correct this than Black Girl, the taut, moving, 1966 film that’s widely regarded as the first-ever fiction feature by a black African director.  It was written and directed by Ousmane Sembène, a brilliant Senegalese auteur who wasn’t merely the godfather of African cinema but probably the greatest artist it has yet produced.  Now out on DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes streaming in a gorgeous new restoration from Criterion, Sembène’s debut feels as timely today as it did half a century ago.”

Hear the full review.

Despite the new conditions that allowed African filmmakers to be more productive, Sembène’s inveterate critical streak did not aid his cause. His screenplay for Black Girl, with its resolutely noncelebratory take on postindependence life for the Senegalese, was the only one ever rejected for production funding by the then head of the Ministry of Cooperation’s Cinema Bureau—the key funding body for francophone African cinema—on the basis of subject matter alone. Accordingly, Sembène invented the term mégotage (a riff on montage, translating roughly to “cigarette-butt cinema”) to describe the lengths to which African filmmakers had to go to scrape together budgets.

Black Girl, then, can be understood as the product of a lifetime of negotiating challenging power relations. Sembène subsumes this wellspring of complexity into the radiant, statuesque form of his central character, Diouana, who is first seen lonely and shaken at the docks, having arrived in France from Senegal on a boat whose horn blares like a demonic warning clarion against viciously whipping winds. The film’s first words—articulated in Diouana’s plaintive voice-over—are: “Has anyone come for me?” A point-of-view shot takes us into her head space as she watches the hustle and bustle with a dispassionate gaze; it’s an unspectacular yet thrilling moment, fully immersing us in the world of an African character. It’s clear, immediately: this is her story. (It’s worth pointing out that funding constraints forced Sembène to dub Diouana’s minimal yet poetic interior monologue in French, a compromise that has the powerful dramatic effect of reflecting the psychic weight of colonialism: she must craft her inner self in a language she cannot speak.)

BLACK GIRL: Self, Possessed by Ashley Clark