With all this talk about The Help coming out this past weekend and whether or not it’s racist, somewhat racist, sexist, all of the above, none of the above, I figured I’d skip out on what looks like a fairly formulaic movie in any case and check out of the first internationally acclaimed sub-Saharan African film by an African filmmaker. Ousmane Sembene’s first feature film Black Girl certainly isn’t subtle, but it tells the story through the eyes of “the help,” except here, the Senegalese nanny Diouanna moves from Dakar to Antibes expecting to escort her young charges through France, but finds herself being treated as a servant. Her new duties include cooking, cleaning and far more cruelty from her wealthy French employers who taunt her with splendid views of France but don’t give her hardly any time to explore on her own. Worse, the children she’s grown to love and bonded with are nowhere to be found. Where are they? Why has she suddenly been demoted to the position of a humiliating servant that’s little more than a slave? These early sections work the best in the film, with the questions piling up and answers nowhere to be found.
The answers lie in a symbolic African mask the rich French employers hang on their wall, a tacky symbol of their belief in colonialism and the power of money over culture, class and race. But the simple fact is that Diouanna’s employers aren’t real characters but very nearly mustache twirling villains. By the end, one of them (if not both) might have learned some kind of lesson; especially when one tries to return the mask that Diouanna purchases from them before dramatically exiting the story. But to be honest, in order for the film to be successful and really hit home, the characters need to feel more grounded and real and less like ciphers. The point comes across and it rings true, but the message gets eaten alive by the methods. Still, the power of the films statement isn’t diminished, and neither is this history making film, even after nearly fifty years of being released.