Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: James Gray’s upcoming The Immigrant has us thinking about the immigrant experience and films that explore it.
Black Girl (1966)
Ousmane Sembène’s debut feature, Black Girl, is commonly cited as the first major film to come out of Sub-Saharan Africa, despite the fact that much of the movie is set in France. Its place in film history has less to do with its production (which was French enough to qualify for France’s Prix Jean Vigo, which Black Girl won in 1966) than with its perspective.
Black Girl was the first feature made in Senegal, and the first feature about black Africans to have been written and directed by a black African. No other national or cultural cinema started as confidently. The movie—about a young woman who takes a seemingly cushy job as maid and nanny to a French couple in Dakar, and then accompanies them back to France—is at once a humanist drama, a portrait of Senegalese life in the 1960s, a study of race relations in France, and a personal statement on post-colonial Africa’s relationship to Europe and the rest of the world.
It is also the rare film about the immigrant experience to take the perspective of the emigrated culture. “Whites always thought that emancipated and decolonized black Africa would give birth to a dancing and singing cinema of liberation,” wrote the great French critic Serge Daney in a review of Sembène’s later Ceddo. What they got, instead, was sharp and sophisticated, shot in starkly lit black-and-white, with every composition emphasizing the angles and geometry of a space. (The most commonly available version also includes a touristy color sequence, inserted to satisfy the film’s French distributor.)
Sembène had served in the Free French Forces during World War II, and spent time in France as a dockworker in the 1940s and 1950s. By the time he made his debut, he was already 40. He had been closely involved in trade unions in Senegal and France, become a successful novelist, and studied filmmaking in the Soviet Union. What he brought to cinema was an ability to ground theory in lived experience and workaday concerns. The result is a film that’s blatantly political, but never grandstanding, and significantly better at demonstrating the link between social forces and the emotions of everyday life than most of its high-minded European contemporaries.
Availability: A 4K restoration of Black Girl opens at BAMcinématek in New York on May 18, 2016, with additional cities to follow.