La Noire de…

This morning I watched La Noire de (Black Girl). Directed in either 1965 (according to the DVD box) or 1966 (according to IMDB) by Ousmane Sembene (the “father” of African cinema), La Noire de was his first film. And this was the first time I had seen it in 20 years.

The plot is rather straightforward (warning, I will be discussing the ending of the film, etc.):
A Senegalese woman [Diouana] is eager to find a better life abroad. She takes a job as a governess for a French family, but finds her duties reduced to those of a maid after the family moves from Dakar to the south of France. In her new country, the woman is constantly made aware of her race and mistreated by her employers. Her hope for better times turns to disillusionment and she falls into isolation and despair. The harsh treatment leads her to consider suicide the only way out. (taken from IMDB)

The story is told by jumping around between Diouana’s (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) plight in Antibes, France and flashbacks to her life in Dakar, Senegal before she went to France. This jumping around creates a deeper sense of the psychological complexity underlying the relatively uncomplicated surface.

Frankly, I don’t know very much about African cinema, or African culture(s) for that matter, but I find this story to be both simple and powerful, in particular because of the use of a traditional African mask as a symbol throughout the film. Here’s how I would suggest “reading” the mask within the narrative:

In the plot Diouana was hired by a white French couple to take care of their children. In her enthusiasm she gives them a traditional African mask. The couple take it and remark that it looks like the genuine article (truly African).

They don’t know exactly where to hang it up. The husband (Robert Fontaine) looks at the other masks they have – presumably just tourist items, not the genuine article.

Regardless,, it seems that they do collect masks. Maybe the mask from Diouana is just another for their collection?

Finally he sets it down on a shelf and they stare at it.

Then we see a close up of the mask.

Then, interestingly, we cut to a close-up of Diouana’s face framed in roughly the same manner as the close-up of the mask. This edit creates a visual relationship between Diouana and the mask. However, what it means is not exactly clear. Has she given up her mask – metaphorically – and what would that mean? Is she now more vulnerable as a person, in terms of who she is? Or is this a good thing that she has given up her mask?

This image of Diouanais one of the only times we see her with a smile; her face looks relaxed and she seems to have no worries.

Later in the plot, but actually earlier in the film, we see Diouana arrive at the French couple’s apartment in Antibes. When she arrives she notices the mask hanging on the apartment wall.

The story takes a nasty turn as she slowly realizes that she was lied to by the French couple, and it is fair to say that she had false hopes based on her romanticizing of France and its culture. It is also fair to say that the French couple, who now treat her badly, are also merely acting out of their position as colonizers and that they, also, have in turn romanticized Africa.

As her role in France turns from nanny to maid to slave, she grows depressed and eventually commits suicide by slicing her throat in the bathtub.

At this point the husband takes her suitcase and the mask back to Dakar to give it to Diouana’s mother (I could not find her screen credit). He also tries to give her Diouana’s pay that is due. Diouana’s mother refuses to accept the money. The Frenchman walks away followed by the young boy (Ibrahima Boy) who holds the mask over his face. The Frenchman walks quickly as though he is trying to get away from the boy.

After the Frenchman boards the ship to leave Dakar the boy stares at him through the mask…

…and then slowly lowers it to reveal his own (true) face.

Credits roll.
We know that Senegal was colonized by France and then gained its independence from France in 1960 – only 5 or 6 years before this film was made. I am inclined to believe that largely because of the colonizing of much of Africa by European nations that there is a kind of impenetrability to Africa for Westerners. That impenetrability is not so much a difference in cultures as it is a conscious (and maybe unconscious) choice made by many Africans to wear a mask, as it were, before their colonizers; to not show their true self, to not be vulnerable. However, I say this as a person who is white, certainly not African, and has not studied the history of Africa or Senegal – so take my ideas with a grain of salt.

I would say that Diouana gave up her mask and paid the price. Her French “owners” never did understand. The final image seems to be saying symbolically that the maskof Africa (or specifically of Senegal) has driven out the colonizers (specifically the French). In this sense, one might also say that the French came and went, but the true Africa still lives on.

I am sure a whole lot more can be said of the use of the mask, including it’s significance in African culture(s), which I do not know, but that is my quick impression.
A final thought: For the most part “classical colonialism appears to be a thing of the past, yet imperialist ambitions in one form or another live on, whether they be economic imperialism or ideological imperialism. I cannot help but wonder at the masks U.S. diplomats and military must be seeing today in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and elsewhere. And I cannot help but wonder at how many more people are going to lose their lives because of U.S. imperial ambitions.

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