Diouana (Thérèse Mbissine Diop), who has accepted to work as a nanny for a French expatriate family in Senegal, believes her dream of visiting France is about to come true. She disembarks from an ocean liner and is met by Monsieur (Robert Fontaine), who drives her to his holiday apartment on the French Riviera. Soon after she settles in, however, Diouana realises that the children are cared for elsewhere and that instead of being a nanny she is exploited as a maid, a cook and a launderer for the French couple, their relatives and friends.
Diouana asserts herself by remaining elegant and competent, mentally judging her employers and retrieving a mask she once gave to Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek). She seeks refuge in the bathroom, the only place where she escapes the constant call of her name, followed by vexing remarks and orders. Illiterate, she depends on Monsieur to answer her mother’s only letter. In such isolation, how can she free herself from enslavement?
From his training in the Soviet Union, Sembene never forgot one artistic principle professed by Russian film and literature critic Dobine, namely that metaphors have to be focussed on the narrative: ‘Without narrative, poetic images make no sense, they become ghostlike’ (My translation). This principle of narrative unity is illustrated by the film’s audio-visual innovations compared with the short story of the same name, La Noire de….
The twenty-eight-page story (inspired by a news item and published in the collection Voltaïque in 1962) puts more emphasis on the African section of Diouana’s life than the film, has more characters and lingers on rivalries among the servants. The maid suffers in silence from being called black by her masters’ guests. The movie, by contrast, isolates the maid and uses cinematic techniques to show her attempts to defy her masters and overcome alienation. The double meaning of the preposition de, which can refer to origin (from) or to ownership (belonging to), would justify a revised translation of the title: ‘Whose Black Girl?’
Upon arriving at her home in France, Diouana is seen in a high angle shot, her eyes looking up the apartment block – not the villa with a garden of the short story. Even before becoming the prisoner of a cramped flat, she looks crushed yet eager. This way of raising her eyes will be a recurrent expression of her resistance to harassment. Dialogue and indirect speech are minimal in the short story whereas Madame’s nagging in the movie exacerbates the maid’s rebelliousness. Diouana’s monologue in voice-over drives the film narrative from the beginning of her misadventure to her tragic end.
Diouana’s vengeance is contained in her head. We are told she cannot speak French, yet her voice-over is in French. Unlike the spectators, her masters cannot hear this monologue and they are puzzled by her behaviour. In an interview forty years after the film, Thérèse Mbissine Diop, apart from grudging the dubbing of her monologue by Haitian Toto Bissainthe, explains that Robert Fontaine (Monsieur in the movie), who was her drama teacher, advised her to observe children for guidance in genuine acting (DVD M3M). Diouana’s distress is that of a child. She hides in obvious places and acts strangely yet her gestures show she knows she is the victim of miserly masters. Madame’s attacks against Diouana’s self-pride (‘Take your shoes off! Don’t forget you are the maid’) inspire the maid to tear up her mother’s letter rather than have it answered by her employer on her behalf. ‘She is mad’, comments Madame, unaware that her maid sees through her exploitative tactics. Likewise, When Monsieur offers Diouana twenty thousand francs CFA (French African Community currency) for several months’ wages, she drops the valueless money and throws herself on the floor, curling up in the foetus position. She eventually picks up the banknotes and returns them to her bewildered employers.
In contrast with the colonial public servant’s collection of decorative artefacts, the mask, which has no part whatever in the short story, is the symbol of the strongest thematic revelation in this movie. Diouana buys this mask from her young brother with her first wages and gives it to her boss as a sign of gratitude for her employment. Once disillusioned, she takes her mask back and leaves it on top of her suitcase. In the last scene of the film, when Monsieur returns Diouana’s belongings to her mother in Senegal, the mourning woman too refuses to accept her daughter’s due wages from him. The mask, however, is repossessed by the young boy. Against the display of solidarity among Diouana’s people, led by the evening class master and letter-writer (Sembene himself, with his legendary pipe), the boy, wearing the mask, tails Monsieur as he flees from the scene. The coloniser’s defeat is made all the more dramatic by shots of the masked boy and the thumping percussion of a mourning chant in Serer, Diouana’s language. These female voices differ strongly from the two musical themes used hitherto in the movie –kora playing for Diouana doing housework and dance hall piano for the French Riviera seen through the window panes.
Another innovation of the film is Diouana’s relationship with an unnamed young intellectual (Momar Nar Sène), who, although politically mature – a photo of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba hangs in his bedroom – is more conservative or more content with his life in Dakar than Diouana. The photo of the couple found in Diouana’s suitcase, comes as a surprise to her French masters, who thought they owned Diouana. This Senegalese young man may be a more positive character than Tive Corréa, the drunkard degenerated by his time in France in the short story, but he remains in the background behind Diouana, an emblematic though failed emancipated woman in Sembene’s imaginary.
Sequences in colour – presumably scenes of happier days in Diouana’s native Casamance – were discarded because the only way Sembene could obtain a release visa in France was to keep his film under sixty minutes. Even truncated, La Noire de… obtained the Jean Vigo Grand Prix in France, The Tanit d’or in Carthage (Tunisia) and the 1966 Grand Prix at the World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar and is reputed to be the first African feature film, at least in West Africa. Sadly, its concept of human rights against exploitation is as topical in many parts of the world today as it was in France in 1966.