Film’s starring black women in lead roles seem like a rare commodity. When compared to the numerous films that tell the story of a white female’s experiences, there are few films that revolve around black women and fewer of those display impressive artistic expression. Since the dawn of cinema black women have been grossly underrepresented, leaving many black actresses to play second fiddle to their white counterpart or only getting to star in films that are of historical significance or biographies. It’s baffling that such a rarity is the norm within cinema when the French film Black Girl shines light to this very problem and has been in existence for over forty years.
Black Girl is an experimentally styled narrative that is told through flashbacks intertwined with current action, all narrated by the lead character Diouana. A native of Darkar, Senegal, Diouana once had dreams of making money through an honest job. She joins the local clan of women who sit outside on street curbs everyday desperate for work until a white French woman hires her as a nanny. The family soon move Diouana to France as a live-in nanny and with stars in her eyes Diouana goes ahead, leaving behind her family and a loved one. But while in France, Diouana begins to question why her role in the house is changing; her employees are now barking orders at her and her race frequently becomes a topic for her employer and their friends to generalize and critique. She soon realizes her only view of France is from the window.
Black Girl plays out like a French New Wave film. Time and space are explored through fluid camera movements that move with intention and purpose. Yet there are stationary patient moments that take place, giving you the feeling of being a fly on the wall. As a result of being shot with a handheld camera, framing is tight and personal. Often times the editing allows a person’s eye line to match another’s, placing us directly in the middle of a moment or feeling.
You ever hear that joke that Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is the forerunner of French New Wave Cinema due to its innovative direction, storytelling methods, and its use of jump cuts? What a great joke. I would argue that Black Girl is the forerunner of the French New Wave as a year before the genre caught wind, it had already used all the creative filming techniques including jump cuts, all done and used in identical fashion to the famous scene in Breathless.
“Patricia, I think we’ve been prematurely overexposed in intro film classes… can I sleep with you now?
Being a low budget film, Black Girl suffers from some stiff wooden acting and sound problems. The film is virtually silent with its sound mostly deriving from voice over narration and line dubbing, it’s also scored with tribal and instrumental music to make up for moments of non-existent atmospheric diegetic sound. Yet, its weaknesses don’t sway the film’s overall impressiveness and strength. Although its only 55 minutes long and speeds through Diouana’s life over a span of months, Black Girl occasionally feels slow as molasses due to scenes of patient waiting and sitting with characters; however, every frame is pivotal in developing Diouana, whether it be watching her prepare herself for a day of cleaning or slowly walking out of a room to cry in solitude.
Black Girl is a woman’s existential crisis in a time of colonialism and racial oppression. It’s thought provoking and enlightening, which is why I’m shocked it’s a film that I’ve never heard discussed. It’s representation at its purest form and everything about lead actress Mbissine Thérèse Diop is beautiful to watch, from her mannerisms and girlish charm to the way her skin appears in black and white. It’s a film that I wished I watched growing up and that more films like it existed. It would have made those awkward teenage years of trying to find my voice a lot easier.
Take a Drink: every time Diouana contemplates her current situation or asks a “why” question
Take a Drink: every time Dioana gets yelled at by the Madame
Take a Drink: when you see jump cuts
Take a Drink: every time “the children” are mentioned