We generally think of a post era as being beyond all the problems, inequities, and stagnant creativity of its predecessor, but in actuality, a post era is the shittiest—and craziest—part of everything. Whether it’s post-feminism or post-punk, the survivors of the previous waves are suddenly plopped in a world where everyone acknowledges that everything should be good and kind and dynamic and different, while the real world and most of its inhabitants live just as they did in your pre-post world. A post world is swimming in the wreckage. It’s the micro-aggressions and the attachment to routine. In simpler terms, it’s like waking up to newfound liberties only to shuffle through a dazed deja vu, where the only difference in your daily life is the feeling you know something is wrong here.
Meet Black Girl. This is post-colonialism.
Mbissine Thérèse Diop plays the titular character, Diouana, who’s plucked from obscurity in her home of Senegal to work for a white couple in France. Her boyfriend and brother tell her not to go, but she’s already got the greener grass on the brain and is convinced she will become very rich and cosmopolitan. Not so. The French couple don’t even have ulterior motives for bringing Diouana to France. They just don’t get that she’s a human who might want to have self worth or time away from cooking and cleaning. And Diouana retaliates with small aggressions, almost as a child might, because the French couple, having taken Diouana away from her native language, have turned her into a child. But this is what most writings on this film already talk about. What they don’t talk about his how poorly it was received internationally, even as it was lauded.
Simultaneous reviews from both Roger Ebert and A. H. Weiler in the Chicago Sun Times and The New York Times, respectively, hailed Ousmane Sembene’s righteous desire to want to portray these issues, but scoff at his ability to make a good film, distilling it down to a melodramatic mess. At the same time, they voraciously praise his short film Barom Sarret, which they consider to be far more nuanced and visually inventive. But Barom Sarret’s class issues are more deeply obscured in humor and multiple characters. The second there’s any kind of politicization or message, however, the white dude critics are quick to dismiss what they see as Black Girl’s faults as just a filmmaker who doesn’t know any better, as opposed to their being the crafted scenes of a filmmaker who’s nuanced in the art of French New Wave. At no point do either of those reviewers in the 60s make mention of Ousmane Sembene’s novel Black Girl, from which he adapted the film, nor do they discuss his long career as a premiere African literary hero. No, instead, it’s the assumption that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he sure did give it a good try. Of course things have changed, and reviewers embrace the film as an African classic, but in the discussion of post-colonialism and white-male-dominated journalism of the 60s attempting to review a very African-bent film directed by a black man, it’s helpful to look at how much the film’s reception mirrors exactly what Ousmane Sembene was trying to get at.
And while Ousmane Sembene was embraced abroad and criticized in America, Mbissine Thérèse Diop had a somewhat opposite experience, being cited as a lovely and subtle actress in the US, but being condemned as a “whore” in Senegal and parts of Europe. The small scene of nudity prompted many women to refuse being seen with her in public, and just when she should have become the biggest actress in Africa, she was instead exiled to France, where the only roles she was offered were in pornos, and even when she did get offered a real role, she had to have her fiancé’s permission to go filming. Diop’s plight in film is salient, because Ousmane Sembene’s mission of liberating women from oppression seemed only to cause more backlash and keep a tighter leash on the ladies.
The rest of the cast and crew seemed to go off and make at least a few films each, but nothing as big as Black Girl. Even the producer André Zwoboda, who’d had an illustrious career in film, working as a director, writer, and producer with Jean Renoir and Henri Cartier-Bresson, fell away after the release of this feature. Ostensibly, Zwoboda did his best to make the film marketable—and palatable—for internationals, even convincing Sembene to do all of Diouana’s voiceovers in French, despite the fact that we know it’s not her native language, and she still has difficulty in speaking it.
Perhaps Sembene gave into this demand, because it would only add another layer to the story, a meta-awareness to how the very production of this statement-film was still dominated by white oppression, even if they were the ones giving him the money and encouraging him to make it. And this is why post-colonialism is so intensely crazy, because the intent to do good is misconstrued with just allowing good to happen. In the end, it’s about control, and Ousmane Sembene was respected and admired as a prolific author and filmmaker by his own people. That others fell in love with him, too, just seemed a bonus. All he had to do was wait out the post.