Tuesday, September 23, 2014

'Black Girl': an appreciation

This African film from 1966 is a gem in more ways than one.  It's an oddly affecting existential film on the most basic of levels and it's a meta commentary on race relations, western imperialism, and African independence on it's other levels.

A white French couple in Dakar hires a young woman who desperately needs work.  She's hired to look after the children of the couple and she does such a good job at it that she's offered a job with the family when they move back to France. She leaps at the chance to go abroad, she thinks she'll get to see France and get to explore it's people and culture.  However once in France she becomes the family's housemaid.  She's expected to cook, clean, and do the laundry and she's kept as a virtual prisoner who can only go out to go to the grocery store.  She gazes out the windows longingly dreaming of seeing the real France.

Once she realizes what's going on, she slows down and becomes recalcitrant in her dealings with the mistress of the house, who treats her like she's a piece of shit or part of the furniture.  At one point after she calls the black girl lazy, she sneers that if she doesn't do the housework then she, the mistress, might have to become the house maid.

The girl gets a letter that the couple claims is from her mother.  In the letter her mother demands she send her wages home and that she thank her upstanding mistress for giving her a job and her cast off clothes.  The girl, already sick of being a slave and longing for home, knows straight off the letter is a fake and she rejects it outright.  She decides to fix things between her and the couple the only way she knows how, by taking her own life by slashing her throat in the couple's bathtub.

The film ends with the husband trying to make amends with the mother of the girl.  He goes to her and offers her the wages he tried to pay her daughter but the mother rebuffs him and he stalks out of the village.  He wears his impotence like an overcoat as he slinks away ashamed.  It's a series of pretty stunning scenes.

On a bigger level the film is about how shitty western countries treated African nations and African people.  The girl represents the whole of Africa, the colonial imperialist powers give her a meager job in her home country, nothing of real importance, it's just babysitting for them while they rape the land of it's resources.  Then they give her and her country their 'freedom' when it suits them but they force her to trade her freedom back to them when they dupe her into coming to France to work in an even more demeaning position.  And while in France she's taken advantage of both as an employee and as a woman, a house guest of the couple grabs her and kisses her and justifies his actions by saying it's okay, he always wanted to kiss a black girl.  Her working life isn't her own and neither is her body, even though she's technically free, white people still control her.

It's a very disturbing film but it's an essential one.  I had read about it her and there but nothing prepared me for the power it packs.  It's a really unassuming film that almost puts you off by it's simplicity but once you give yourself over to the story it really sucks you in and by the end, it's only a little more than fifty minutes long, you're surprised at how much you care and how affected you are by the story.  For a film made in 1966, this simple film is pretty complex and plenty disturbing.

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