In praise of Mbissine Thérèse Diop in Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl

The first feature by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, known as the father of African cinema, exposed the legacies of colonialism with a dignified and heartbreaking performance from Mbissine Thérèse Diop, says Sarah Jilani.

Sarah Jilani

Black Girl (1966)

Black Girl (1966)

The original French title of this 1966 film is La Noire de…, which literally means “the black girl of…” – a shorthand of the time for “the domestic servant of…” The eponymous ‘girl’ is not an outright slave, of course (not in the liberal French society of the 1960s), but she’s still a possession.

Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 film is believed to be the first feature-length film ever made by a sub-Saharan African (Sembène had previously made the short film Borom Sarret in 1963) and, just like its title, reveals layers upon layers of meaning. What struck me especially on first viewing was the mesmerising grace of its unknown lead, Senegalese actor Mbissine Thérèse Diop, but I notice new and moving details in this early masterpiece every time I return to it.

Diop plays our protagonist Diouana, a lively young woman with dreams of cosmopolitan French living. Nanny to a white French family who live in post-independence Dakar, Diouana is not defined by her job. She does boast about its perks coquettishly, so as to enjoy a little jealousy from her boyfriend, but she is no devoted ‘mammy’ like black servant characters from the Hollywood films of the era.

Black Girl (1966)

This is an independent new Senegal: Diouana is young, beautiful and has no qualms about using the mutually beneficial setup to reach bigger dreams. Diop acts with a natural confidence in her femininity, and a warm ease of belonging among her community. Her expressive face, body language and gaze show us her character’s flaws and strengths. She’s a bit of a dreamer, spunky in spirit, with a girlish wistfulness for adventure.

She thinks her chance at glamour has come when the French family ask her to come with them on their summer sojourn to Antibes in the south of France. The rags-to-riches promise looks a little hollow: Diouana already seems so free, so at home in the bustling vibrancy of Dakar. There is no loneliness or poverty to her life. I got a sinking feeling at the prospect of her new offer, but her strong character had me hooked to see what she’d make of her new surroundings.

Black Girl (1966)

But things do change once Diouana is in France. As in Dakar, she thinks she would look after the children, but now they expect her to cook, clean, shop and serve too. Sembène keeps his audience focused on Diouana’s feelings throughout, but he is not being ambiguous here either: this is history repeating itself in a new guise. For all her confidence and idealism, Diop’s character is vulnerable to exploitation along all-too-familiar race and gender lines. Colonial attitudes linger, in both a psychological and economic sense.

Diouana’s madame and master are the perfect picture of hypocrisy. Madame watches Diouana like a hawk and constantly puts her to work – even locking Diouana in the apartment when she heads out, “for Diouana’s own safety”. The master seems to sense Diouana’s loneliness and distress but purposefully evades Diouana’s pleas to spare himself the guilt.

Sembène’s characters do say a lot about race relations, but none are evil caricatures; they are even oblivious. There’s a dinner party sequence where her employers show Diouana off to their guests, boasting about how they can’t live without her “authentic African cooking”. One guest magnanimously asks to “kiss the negress” in thanks. Moving onto coffee, they “appraise” Diouana’s “instincts” for understanding madame without speaking French.

It’s moments like these where Black Girl’s scathing criticism is at its best. Sembène shows us the sneaky danger here is no longer obvious racism and exploitation, but the hypocrisy of a ‘helpful’ west that still can’t give up its master’s comforts.

Black Girl (1966)

Diop’s dignity and growing despair in Black Girl is painful to watch. You can see the abjection in her face, and you wish she would rage and storm out to freedom. It’s hard to believe this was Diop’s first (and, as it turned out, last) foray into acting, because she absolutely nails her character’s growing feelings of helplessness and entrapment. Her interior monologue suggests her diminishing self-worth, while her body language – restless in the apartment, gazing down at the rich and white holidaymakers below – has us feeling her isolation and displacement.

I won’t give away the ending, but Sembène is unapologetic in driving home the psychological cost of all these pressures on black identity. Diouana’s story, brought to life by the natural talent Diop, is powerful stuff, and, luckily for us film lovers, Sembène had plenty more great films in store for us in the years to come.

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