There is a well-known comment from F. Scott Fitzgerald where he suggests that the sign of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contrary thoughts in one’s mind simultaneously – and still function. But what if that mind isn’t only ostensibly not first-rate, but that the person can’t read or write? What happens if someone from such a position is expected to hold two contrary thoughts in their mind simultaneously, without the wherewithal to process these contradictions? Is this not the position of Ousmane Sembene’s titular character in Black Girl, played by Mbissine Therese Diop?
Sembene may have said that the film was an essential step in his attempt to “Africanise the style and conception of my cinema…”, but in many ways it seems a product of the Nouvelle vague in that it doesn’t so much offer the central character’s subjective take on the world, but finds a way of generating a fellow feeling with which to comprehend her being. Certainly we have her thoughts in voice-over, but we also have in the visual style a sense of observation that proposes a concerned on-looker. If Sembene’s Xala or Mooladé suggest in many ways the caustic on-looker that invokes satire, Black Girl offers the concerned on-looker that makes the film visually consistent with not just many Nouvelle vague films like Le Bonnes femmes, Vivre sa vie and 400 Blows, but also early sixties Italian films like Olmi’s The Job, and Prague Spring works like The Loves of a Blonde. It is if you like a lyrical sympathy; an ability to be both within a character’s perspective and at the same time to be empathically removed.
This is perhaps how the film manages to suggest the intelligence for containing two contrary ideas in the mind at once without burdening a character with that intellectual acumen. Lyrical sympathy is both personal (often utilising voice-over like Vivre sa vie and here), but also observational, and allows the filmmaker to use characters who are capable of great feeling, but not always given to or educationally capable of articulating their emotions. Thus if Black Girl is an essential step in the Africanisation of his style, it is also part of something bigger, not so much the Third Cinema of acidic, politically general observation that we would often see in Sembene’s later work, and that would be central to much Third Cinema including Chahine (Alexandra, Why? Rocha (Antonio das Mortes) and the Guttiérez Alea of The Last Supper. These are films where, as Robert Phillip Kolker has said of Rocha in The Altering Eye, “the elements dealt with …are patterned into a complex mixture of folk opera, musical comedy, western and a Latin-American version of the myth of Saint George and the dragon.” Kolker adds “the result is an enormous spectacle of the birth of revolutionary consciousness.” In lyrical sympathy, however, it is not so much the birth of revolutionary consciousness (which for example would cover Sembene’s Xala, Camp de Thiaroye and Moolaadé) but the death of burgeoning consciousness.
Here Diop’s central character, Diouna, manages to find employment in Senegal working for a white family, and when they return to France she goes with them. However, whilst in Senegal she was the children’s maid, in France she becomes the housemaid. Where in Senegal she got to walk the streets in Dakar, in the Antibes she’s stuck in the house all and every day, washing floors, cleaning out the bath and making exotic African dishes for the family and their guests. Her desire for liberation is expressed simply – she wants to walk the streets in the French town – but where would she go, the wife muses? She doesn’t know anybody in France, so surely it makes more sense for her to stay at home. There is the suggestion here that the wife thinks she’s protecting her in this foreign land, but in the sort of lyrical sympathy Sembene practises the fear is not from without, but from within. Sembene works with an unremitting inevitability here as Diouana moves towards suicide as the problem really is about the inability to open up the mind when the situation closes it off.
What Sembene works with is invisibility on the one hand, and closed subjectivity on the other. These needn’t come together, but the tragedy of Black Girl is that they do. In relation to invisibility, Scottish writer James Kelman says in Some Recent Attacks that he would differentiate between an artist and a painter partly by how “they treated the servants, how they treated the folk who work behind the bar at the Art Club, the folk who serve the grub down in the refectory, the ones who carry the pictures up the stairs and hang them.” Kelman adds “if a painter doesn’t see what’s under her or his nose then she or he is odds-on not to be any bloody good…” It is because in Kelman’s eyes the artist would lack the capacity to see the ‘invisible’ – to see the people who are not central to everyday consciousness but perceived as peripheral to it. They become in the eyes of others not subjects but objects – it is surely the artist’s purpose to turn these ‘objects’ back into subjects. This is what Sembene does to that generalised notion the black girl, but it is of course what the French family fail to do in relation to Diouana – and this is central to her mental deterioration, a deterioration perhaps exemplified in the interior monologue in voice-over spoken by another person altogether.
This leads us into the second aspect which lies in her subjectivity quashed. If the first element indicates what others can do to turn us into social objects, this doesn’t mean that our interior state can’t possess a subjectivity contrary to that social objectivization. Diouana’s problem is that the subjectivity becomes inert: it isn’t only that it is socially objective, but that the subjective state has no outlet at all. When the existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel quotes in Creative Fidelity André Gide saying “Know thyself. A maxim which is as pernicious as it is unbecoming. Whoever observes himself arrests his own development”, he thinks Gide has a point if we think of self-reflection as contraction, and this is exactly the self-knowledge Diouana practises. It becomes blocked subjectivity, as thoughts are internally expressed but never find an external outlet. In one scene in France, after a dinner the guests are impressed by the food Diouana has cooked and by her exoticism, but even Diouana’s boss, the housewife, seems to see that she isn’t happy about these mixed compliments. However, instead of examining what might be wrong, the boss quickly follows her momentary concern with a request for coffee. The best Diouana can hope for is a stagnant subjectivity because there are no outlets or inputs, no way for the thought to circulate. So with invisibility on the one hand and trapped thought on the other, what is left for this beautiful young woman but to kill herself?
Here we can return to the Sembene comment quoted above, and add one by Caryl Phillips where he says in an interview, “class is also an important issue. It’s very hard to discuss issues of race without discussing issues of class.” What Sembene offers isn’t only a race film, but also a class film, and by attaching trapped subjectivity to social objectivization, he gives us a fresh aesthetic without it being unfamiliar, if we accept that an aesthetic is less a given of form than an issue of subjectivity. Sembene seems to owe something to the Nouvelle vague in form, but it is attached to very different content and gives the form a fresh perspective. When in an interview Godard says “the Nouvelle vague is accused of showing nothing but characters in bed…” that is to some degree exactly what Sembene’s film shows. Except that the Black Girl can’t get out of bed because she has been given no space to live; the invisibility becomes too great, the subjectivity too closed down. The film possesses, in a flawless voice-over, the subjective possibilities Sembene can’t quite give to his character in her day to day life because, unlike Sembene, she doesn’t possess the wherewithal to offer her perspective on the world. Sembene, who started out as a docker, then wrote novels and, determined to reach a wider audience, went off to Moscow and studied film, found in Moscow, and it would seem in the Nouvelle vague, a means with which to expand his own subjectivity.
Sembene here chooses what we could call the internal as opposed to the external option of what was soon to be called the Third Cinema we’ve alluded to above, and by The Cinema Book as referring “to the colonised nations and ‘minorities’ whose structural disadvantages have been shaped by the colonial process and the unequal division of international labour.” In Black Girl, though, revolutionary consciousness is less important than trapped consciousness, and like Tomás Guttiérez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, or ‘white’ films set in black Africa, like Marion Hansel’s Dust, or Claire Denis’ Chocolat, it is a film that tries to understand trapped subjectivity: it asks how can a life collapse internally? At one moment in Chocolat, the black servant cries and hammers his fist against a wall as though trying to make sense of the feelings he has for the woman of the house. Later, the woman of the house asks her husband to ban him from their home as she can’t, or daren’t, quite make sense of her feelings towards him. In revolutionary consciousness what is vital is visibility, the move towards making oneself and one’s culture apparent to one’s class enemies and the wider world. The invisible is made visible. In trapped consciousness, however, the process is not towards action, but towards self- awareness. Again Marcel can help us here when he says “I can only grasp myself as being – on condition that I feel; and it can also be conceded that to feel is to receive; but it must be pointed out at once that to receive in this context is to open myself to, hence to give myself, rather than to undergo an external action.”
However, what happens when we open ourselves up and yet there is no external action – how can we cope with the discrepancy between being and becoming? Diouana is quite literally all dressed up with nowhere to go as she does the housework in the French home wearing figure hugging dresses and high heels. What she feels and how she can express that feeling are very different states, and so it is as though she internally collapses through blocked desire, through what Marcel would perhaps call inespoir, through ‘unhope”. The more she dresses up the more she realizes not so much the hopelessness of her life – which might be closer to the demands of revolutionary consciousness – but the unhope, which is closer to the inability to achieve personal liberation. Is it not so often of inespoir that feminist cinema talks, and where the slogan the personal is the political becomes vital?
So it is not to revolutionary consciousness that Sembene seeks to understand his heroine, but through trapped consciousness. Where in the former the people need to take to the streets; in Black Girl’s trapped consciousness merely to walk along one of them would be an act of liberation. When Sembene flashes back to Diouana walking the streets of Dakar, whether with the French family’s children, or her suitor, this is quite literally trapped consciousness, a reverie to past times that opens up past spaces. Her present space is no more than the house she cleans, so here flashback serves a function greater than memory: it also serves to show what cannot be lived in the present. When we witness scenes of Diouana walking through Dakar in the past, it is partly because we cannot see her walking through the streets of the Antibes now. It illustrates her present unhope. Sembene does something impressive: he suggests the melancholy of a past life which is indeed very possible in the present ontologically, but impossible politically. This isn’t the reverie of a woman who recalls when she was young and beautiful (this isn’t the ontological impossibility of a film that in some ways Black Girl recalls – Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour) it is the immediately politically and socially impossible. As Diouana washes the bath, tidies the flat and cooks while dressed as if she were on her way out to a social event, we sense very strongly that this is decidedly ontologically possible; all she asks is for a certain freedom that is at the heart of politics, no matter if it is the revolutionary form that usually holds our attention, and that Sembene instead offers it here in internalised form.
It is then hardly accidental that Sembene ends his film with the French father returning to the streets of Dakar after Diouana’s death, and specifically to the back streets where of course the father can freely roam in the way that Diouana clearly couldn’t in France. Yet here there is nothing assured about his return to Dakar, and as he furtively and cautiously wanders the streets with Diouana’s belongings, so we realize that if Diouana was unable to walk the streets of France because of her generally accepted invisibility making her too visible (a black girl walking alone) then has the film not reversed this awkwardness when the father is able to walk the Dakar streets but has become himself self-conscious? As he finds his way to Diouana’s house, and tries to hand over her earnings that the mother refuses to accept, so we may notice not so much a socio-political dimension crossing his visage, but perhaps at least a realization that he may never be able to count on the invisible service industry of black girls serving white needs.
Roy Armes, in an all too brisk analysis of the film in African Filmmaking, mentions Sembene’s suggestion that when the husband returns to Dakar he isn’t only looking to return Diouana’s goods, but also to return to find another maid, but, even if this is so, we might wonder who it was in the meantime that has cleaned out the bath after Diouana’s suicide. When, shortly after we’ve seen Diouana’s bloodied corpse lying in the bath, we see again a gleaming tub, the bath that when she was alive we would see Diouana cleaning. But who cleaned it after she died, who was responsible for this grubbiest of domestic tasks? Sembene sub-textually, and brilliantly and suggestively, mixes two idioms here: the idea of getting your hands dirty and getting blood on your hands. Sembene may be right that the husband goes to Dakar partly to find another maid, but the bath has already been cleaned, the sins washed down the bathtub. However, there seems little assuredness in the husband’s body language in Dakar, and after Diouana’s mother refuses the money, the husband scuttles away, increasingly, it seems, traumatised by the city, and perhaps also by his own trapped subjectivity in the circumstances. Al Alvarez in The Savage God once reckoned “there is, I believe, a whole class of suicides…who take their own lives not in order to die but to escape confusion, to clear their heads.” Is this what happens to Diouana, unable to hold contradictory thoughts in her head simultaneously and still function, and is this maybe also what could happen to the husband, no longer so secure in the invisibility of the house servants?
To conclude, in his novel God’s Bits of Wood, Sembene offers a passage where a white character says to a black: “Are you saying that I don’t like the Negroes?” The recently relatively empowered black striker, Doudou, replies, “well if you do, tell me why you do. A black man isn’t an object to be liked or disliked like an orange or a piece of furniture. So why should you say “I like them”?” The simple question, the narrator says, perplexed the white man, Isnard, and not so many pages later he’s losing his grip on reality, and shoots three children, two of them dead. The husband in Black Girl may not collapse, and may not kill, but it as though, like the white man in the novel, his internal value system has collapsed, that his beliefs and prejudices may no longer hold. When Frantz Fanon suggests in his book, Toward the African Revolution, “the Frenchman in Algeria cannot be neutral or innocent. Every Frenchman in Algeria oppresses, despises, dominates”, what the quoted passage in Sembene’s novel illustrates is the defence against that unthinking oppression. Sembene’s Doudou moves towards revolutionary consciousness as he forces into the white man’s mind an alien thought Isnard cannot process. Diouana’s character in Black Girl moves in the other direction and towards the blocked subjectivity of suicide. These are however indubitably the two sides of the colonialist coin, and so, no matter the Nouvelle vague influences and the Moscow training, Sembene’s exploration of an African problematic is still very much intact.