Ousmane Sembène: Critical Cinema in African History

In the realm of the cinematic world, there are many directors who made their mark in the history books for their tenure in the arts during their country’s revolutionary movements. Many countries during the 1950s and through to the 1980s had evolving relationships with their governments and their citizens, most of which would lead to various forms of freedoms. Numerous newfound freedoms from government grips opened up many doors for directors to step away from the old restrictions and regulations on their film industries and began a wave of new and creative artistic cinema to take its place—appropriately named a country’s New Wave of cinema. As for the African film industry, that director can most certainly be noted as being Ousmane Sembène. Sembène is remembered for copious reasons, the most compelling being his political narratives for his film, often challenging his home country of Senegal’s corruption of independence and colonial oppression from France. Born in 1923 in Ziguinchor, Senegal, Sembène would end up creating some of the most politically empowering and realistic films for Africans and gain his nickname that is used to this day, the father of African cinema.1 So, what exactly did Sembène do to create such a controversial and impactful legacy? He took the opportunities presented to him to create art representative of real African’s lives such as his own and created subversive films such as La Noire De… or Black Girl. In this project, a more in-depth analysis of Black Girl will be discussed—specifically, it’s intended representation of a post-colonial Senegal and its relationship with France. This analysis will reflect upon Sembène’s focus on a realistic Black Senegalese experience while critiquing the ongoing effects of French colonization of Senegal. In doing so, exploration into his use of filmmaking as an outlet for political expression, pushing past the basic entertainment value of cinema is inevitable.


To delve into the cinematic world of Sembène and Black Girl, audiences must begin with an understanding of a few important points. Firstly, Ousmane Sembène was born and raised in a colonized Senegal, making him a French citizen. He was also a bricklayer who joined a construction union at the age of 23, where he first witnessed, “the power and potential of what could happen when Africans united,”2 due to a strike by workers that actually ended up having an effect on the colonial economy, as author Mateo Askaripour writes in his article Through Films for Black Audiences, Ousmane Sembène Spoke to All. Always much more interested in the arts, Sembène eventually set off to create films that would leave a much longer lasting impact in his own communities, and even the world, than the past European films muddled with heavily inaccurate representations of African culture. This venture would prove to be difficult, as Sembène would first have to figure out a financial situation to fund his works.


With Senegal becoming officially independent of France in 1960, the gap of six years between then and 1966 when Sembène attempted to get Black Girl created was simply, “not enough time for Senegal to have established a viable national cinema,”3 writes author Steven Malčić. In Sembène’s case, that brings him to the Bureau du Cinéma, which was a bureau that had been “…founded in Senegal in 1963, [that] facilitated the production of educational film.”4 The Bureau also was responsible for providing funding and both financial and technical resources for African filmmakers who wanted to create culturally expressive works. Implemented to help filmmakers such as Sembène himself, the Bureau denied aiding the director and his venture based on the subject matter—undoubtedly related to the critical or undesirable image in which the French characters are displayed in. After reaching out to the CNC in France after being shot down in Senegal, it seemed as if there was no shot at Sembène’s film gaining enough traction for funding. They also denied support and Sembène eventually managed to produce his film independently. The independent production did not sit well with the CNC, as they found it to be a type of threat for them, noting that it, “has a particular edge of significance for Senegalese audience, meaning a traitor or collaborator with the colonial order.”5 Malčić further elaborates that:


The [CNC] was conscious of the fact that a Senegalese audience might find particular resonance with Sembène’s scathing critique of the organization. It is for this reason, perhaps, that upon the purchase of the film’s distribution rights by French companies, La Noire de . . . premiered in Paris and was prevented from being commercially screened in Africa (Diawara 1992: 108). These institutions forced Sembène to experience spatiotemporal displacement, requiring him to be both French and Senegalese, both colonized and living in a postcolonial Dakar, during the process of production. Once the film was completed independently, neocolonial institutions brought control of the film’s exhibition, and displaced the film geographically from the very audience for whom it was made in a further attempt to keep the Senegalese ‘behind the times’ of their own reality.6


It is with this obvious attempt to sabotage the viewing of this film by its intended audience that raises the question, why? What exactly does Black Girl entail that makes the French seek it out to be so undesirable towards their culture? What exactly did Sembène express through his 56-minute movie that is widely considered to be Africa’s first independent feature film?


Black Girl is a story about a young woman living in Dakar who moves to France under the impression that she would be working as a sort of au pair for a wealthy white family. It is set only a few years after Senegal declared its independence from France in 1960, forcing it to portray, “the paradoxes of this immediate postcolonial moment.”7 This is parallel to Sembène’s life himself, as author of Politics and Style in Black Girl Marsha Landy writes, “transplanted from Dakar to France, Sembène was a dockworker in France and forced to contend with the racial and cultural situation which he has Diouana experience.”8 Diouana eventually finds this new life in France to be a lonely and empty one, being treated more like a housekeeper rather than any type of nanny. It is in her time with the family before her eventual suicide that Sembène turns her simple story into one that is very critical of the relatively colonialist psyche in what was a supposed post-colonial time and place. To begin to depict these injustices and issues within his society, Sembène uses the relationships between the young maid, Diouana, her employers, and even at times, their French peers. In the beginning of the film, it seems as if Diouana being whisked away to a presumably more favorable France with a job and a new life ahead is all she could have ever hoped for. After all, her new employer finds her sitting on the streets of Dakar. But, after the insinuation that Diouana’s work would pertain more closely to caring for the children turned out to be a manipulation, her story does not take a turn towards that improved life. Marsha Landy expresses this perfectly in her writing, stating:


Diouana quickly learns that she must do the cooking, laundry, cleaning, and babysitting. Without salary or friends, treated as invisible by her employer, confined to the house except for shopping, and disillusioned by the sad discrepancy between the realities of her life in France and her earlier fantasies of France as a Mecca of beautiful people, appealing consumer items, and adventure”9


Her emotionless employers are anything but kind or respectful of Diouana, treating her more like a slave. At one point, one of their houseguests even grabs her, exclaiming that he had never kissed a black woman before, and does just that—non-consensually and uncomfortably. Nobody really seems to care. Aside from her mistreatment, and being the visible lone black woman often confronted by callous Caucasians, Diouana also has trouble even communicating with the new people she is surrounded by. They discuss how she seemingly understands French but does not often speak. “Diouana’s inability to speak for herself is, in Sembène’s terms, the crux of her cultural subordination. It’s the mark of French dominance over the African.”10 At one point in the film, Diouana receives a letter from Dakar in which the husband immediately begins to pen an unsolicited response for, as Diouana herself was unable to write or read. She expresses that the husband’s writing is not her own and it becomes clear that her employer is in control—she remains unable to speak for herself. In the grand scheme of things, it ultimately sheds light on the French and the whites—still holding rule over Africans and Senegal—even in what was supposed to be a post-colonial society. Diouana is not a free woman.


It seems as if Sembène set out to make these characters just the opposite of how Diouana expected them to be. He presents these white characters, specifically her new employers, incredibly negatively, using visuals from their overindulgent and somewhat confrontational relationship. Times when the film depicts these characters in such a light is used to “…destroy any attractiveness Africans might find in their style of life.”11 By doing so, Sembène shows the misrepresentation of their somewhat bourgeois lifestyle and depicts that the oppressors are, in their own way, oppressed themselves. He kills Diouana’s beautiful fantasies of France. He uses visuals throughout the entire film to force audiences to ask themselves further questions about his underlying meaning. Sometimes these visuals are obvious, such as the scene with the dark African mask placed upon the sheer, empty white wall of her new employer’s apartment. This mask is symbolic in many ways, from representing African Americans and their life shoved into a giant white world, to representing Diouana herself, alone and isolated surrounded by white. The mask and Diouana seem misplaced, misunderstood, and even a bit like they were put there as a prop—something to be looked at and used.12 Diouana is supposed to be independent, just as a post-colonial Senegal was to be, but nothing about her life is free. Sembène also uses visuals that are not so obvious, asking the audience to dig a little deeper.


Sembène uses subtle scenes to express his views, scenes that would take a deeper thought to understand his intended purposes. For example, the scene from the beginning of the film when Diouana first sees the European woman and watches as all of the other Senegalese women flock to her in a rush.13 Ironically, it is because Diouana stays back from these eager women that she is chosen by her new employer. Landy explains it by writing:


“By contrasting Diouana’s reticence with the others’ over-eagerness, Sembène establishes that the white woman selects Diouana as a rebuke to the other women’s obvious financial desperation. The brevity of the scene, its minimal action and dialogue, and its unalleviated contrast between dominant and subordinate classes, brings into focus the situation of many black women in Dakar. They face a total dependence on the white elites for work.”14


Throughout the entire film, we also view Diouana’s many beautiful dresses, jewelry, and wigs. She is always dressed pleasantly, reflective almost of the France she fantasized over, showing Diouana’s false expectations of life there. It is as if throughout the entire film, she tries her best to fit in, but only does so on the outside with jewelry and frivolous clothes. Somehow, even with her look, her employers still manage to see right past her. “These deceptive, appealing images of the power of consumer objects signify the complex obstacles that bind young Africans like Diouana to imperialism.”15 Aside from the content within lone scenes themselves, how Sembène filmed the entire movie was crucial to his expressions as well. We view the movie in black and white, with different tones being key. As author Cristina Lopez writes, “The film places human figures (especially Diouana’s) against spaces, creating powerful shots in which the contrast between different tonalities is highly expressive.”16


It would be an easy task to continue to pick various examples from the film to pursue, proving Sembène’s points and driving them home. But in the end, the last representation drives it all the way home itself—and that is in Diouana’s suicide. Her death holds large significance, and also concludes the story of a life filled with isolation, lack of education, and various forms of oppression. Her suicide could be seen as resistance to her oppressor, refusing to continue a slave-like life under their thumb. It could also be seen as a representation of Africans equal to Diouana, to refuse compliance with white authoritarians. As Landy puts it, “Sembène has identified Diouana’s lusting after European culture as suicidal. In 1966, he is using her as a symbol to reveal and exercise the false expectations of young Africans as they meet European culture.”17


Through these examples, we scrape the tip of the mountain of evidence that correlates between Ousmane Sembène’s Senegalese background and his expressions of African political and cultural post-French colonialism through film. Taking his own life and upbringing into much consideration, Sembène uses artistic and visual tactics that have his narratives and characters reflect his real-life experiences and issues with neocolonialism in both Senegal and France. Through his creative endeavors, he has imprinted a monumentally historical impression on the African film industry, and still manages to teach students today about important historical developments that for some reason, still feel somewhat relevant. He used his platform in the industry as a realistic voice for those many misrepresented and underrepresented Africans as well as a post-colonial Africa—in more ways than, but importantly with, Black Girl.



1 Mateo Askaripour, “Through Films for Black Audiences, Ousmane Sembène Spoke to All,” Literary Hub, May 2, 2019.

2 Askaripour, “Through Films for Black Audiences”.

3 Steven Malčić, “Ousmane Sembène’s vicious circle: The politics and aesthetics of La Noire de,” Journal of African Cinemas Vol. 5, no. 2 (2013): p. 170

4Malčić, “Ousmane Sembène”. p. 169.

5 Ibid., p. 171.

 6 Ibid.

7 Cristina Alvarez Lopez, “A Long Way from Home: African History, Politics and Identity in Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl,” Screen Education no. 90 (Sept. 2018): p. 75.

8 Marsha Landy, “Politics and Style in Black Girl,” Jump Cut no. 27 (July 1982).

9 Landy, “Politics and Style,”.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Black Girl, directed by Ousmane Sembène. 1966, New Yorker Video.

13 Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Black Girl.

 14 Landy, “Politics and Style.”

15 Ibid.

16 Cristina Alvarez Lopez, “A Long Way from Home”.

17 Landy, “Politics and Style”.