Black Girl ★★★★★

Diouana has come from her home and family in Dakar, Senegal, to Paris, where she’s hired to take care of the children of a wealthy white family. But while there, the family’s cruel demands of her extend far beyond being a nanny - until she becomes an imprisoned slave.

In his debut feature and running just under an hour long, Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène manages to encompass the entire colonial experience within one cramped Parisian apartment.

He does it through clever uses of flashbacks and parallel cutting to her native Dakar, where we meet her family and bare witness to just how Diouana got in this situation. Sembène contrasts her feelings trapped in the apartment with the hopes and optimism she had back home. His camera never betrays her emotional state as Sembène’s tight frames in France and wide shots in Senegal keep us in the same emotional state as Diouana. 

Rarely do we see Diouana speak. Over the course of the film, we are witness to her thought about every moment. It’s an amazing performance, conveyed almost entirely through glances and reactions.  

Sembène is a master in his use of symbols. Objects in the apartment, such as shoes, curries, fashion magazines and letters, are loaded in symbolism, each representing different aspects in the traditions of white institutional racism and slavery. So too are the images in Senegal loaded with symbolism, the most pronounced being Diouana’s dance on top of the Senegalese Monument of Independence.

But the film’s most potent and brilliant symbol lies in the unforgettable African mask that visually dominates all elements of the film. It begins as a gift Diouana offers her white employers, where it hangs high on a wall in their Paris apartment, glaring at her as she toils. Eventually it becomes the gift she takes back, and in the film’s piercing final image, a spectre that represents all of Africa, chasing the white man out of its land.

Black Girl is a masterpiece. One of the most important films about colonialism ever made.