Many congratulations to Matthew Finnerty, whose essay “Is France that black hole?” was awarded the 2020 Cinema Studies Essay Award!
“Is France that black hole?” Third Cinema and Postcolonialism in Sembene Ousmane’s Black Girl (1966) and Mandabi (1968)
by Matthew Finnerty
As Diouana, the protagonist of La Noire De… (1966), looks the darkness of Antibes from her bedroom window, she asks, “Is France that black hole?” Although her dreams of experiencing France as a dignified worker are quickly dashed by her “employers,” her question serves as an apt metaphor for understanding the relationship between Sembene Ousmane’s filmic oeuvre, French imperialism, and Senegal’s postcolonial identity. Sembene’s La Noire de… and Mandabi (1968) posit the filmmaker as a modern-day griot—a hereditary class of storyteller-historians in West African culture—not only responsible for evoking and explaining the aftermath of French imperialism, and accompanying colonialism, but also exposing the failures of the new Senegalese nation-state in meeting the promises of liberation from the colonizers. Moreover, in the wake of decolonization, these films represent a new form of European subjugation—neo-colonialism. Sembene’s films seek to provoke the audience through carefully constructed cinematography and historical realism. These elements illustrate Sembene’s conceptualization of the filmmaker as a griot who preserves both the histories and oral traditions of West African peoples. Although La Noire de… explores a disorienting journey into the European metropole from the perspective of a former colonial subject, while Mandabi illustrates the social and economic destruction caused on traditional African communities in the wake of modernization, both demonstrate the ramifications of neo-colonialism as the new Senegalese nation-state adopts European values and interests and fails to live up to the promises of liberation.
Before independence and decolonization, France attempted to absorb its colonies and colonial subjects through extending French citizenship. As Keith Kennedy explains, “the purpose of the [French] Union was to stitch the various components of the French empire together as a grand federation, founded on the liberal promise that it would evolve over time into an association of genuine partners” (Kennedy 48). But as the ideals of French Union failed to live up to such ideals for the majority of West Africans, Senegal eventually gained its independence from in 1960. However, despite this recognition of Senegal’s soververgity, the new West African nation-state was quickly forced to re-submit itself to the wide-reaching influence of Western capitalism and virulent individualism.
In the wake of Senegal’s independence and the process of decolonization, Semebene— who worked as a laborer France and then writer—eventually studied film in Soviet Union. Upon returning to Senegal, and witnessing the stagnation of his country’s development, Sembene became a pioneering figure of Third cinema as the first African director to make films about Africa. In the context of postcolonialism, Sembene’s films represent an aesthetic and thematic response to colonial discourse, which represents the colonial subject, or native, through mystifying, infantilizing, and dehumanizing manners, which abstract the colonial subject as inferior (Langford 14). Colonial discourse also assigns various colonial subjects, across multiple distant continents, to an universal category— without any, if not the very least, amount of ethical subjectivity. Frantz Fanon, commenting Europe’s attitude towards its colonial subjects, ironically wrote, “Blacks are men who are black; in other words… they have settled in a universe from which we have to extricate them” (xii). The European colonial project, which sought to bring civilization and simultaneously civilize the native populations, wanted to “liberate the black man from himself” (Fanon xii). Through political and economic rule of Senegal, supported by French military power, the French not only extracted resources from its colonial territories, but also imposed a racial hierarchy in the minds of colonial subjects—resulting in an internalized inferiority complex for the colonial subject, divorcing the subject from traditional African ways of life, and thrusting the subject into “civilized” European modernity.
La Noire de… portrays the life of Diouana through a fragmented narrative, which oscillates between her contemporary life in France and her life before in Senegal. At first she works in her own country as a maid for a French family—caring for their children. Later, Madame and Monsieur ask Diouana to move to France with them and continue her employment as their family’s maid. Diouana, excited about the opportunity, dreams of the experience of living in France as the French live in Dakar, but these dreams are quickly crushed by the reality of her role as a neo-colonial subject of the family.
Throughout the film, Semebene uses cinematography to “[figure] the mask as having been inserted into the economy of French neo-colonialism, an economy which seeks to engulf its ‘others’” (Langford 18). The mask, which Diouana gives to the family in Dakar, has divergent meanings for the giver and receiver as it changes hands throughout the film: while in Senegal the mask is displayed among other African masks and artifacts in the French family’s apartment— representing unified African identity (Langford). But in France, the mask hangs alone on a jarring white wall, which engulfs the mask, and illustrates Senegal’s continual subjugation under neo-colonialism. The fluid meaning of the mask as a symbol in the film, as it moves from Diouana’s possession to Madame and then back to Diouana, “underlines the cultural differences between the Senegalese and the (white) French who see the former, and their cultural output, in stereotypical, degrading fashion” (Dima 66). Diouana’s fighting for the mask with Madame represents Africa’s right to self-representation. After Diouana reclaims the mask and kills herself, Madame and Monsieur do not hang the mask back on their wall, which represents successful African resistance: rather, Monsieur travels back to Dakar to give Diouana’s family her belongings, including the mask and money Diouana earned as a maid. Diouana’s mother rejects Monsieur’s money, and he leaves the belongings. Afterwards, Diouana’s brother puts the mask on and follows Monsieur through the streets of Dakar. These final moments of the film metaphorically respond to the dehumanizing colonial discourse by having the masked-boy “haunt” Monsieur.
Diouana’s silence in the scenes, her suicide, and the film’s voice-over as access to her innermost thoughts. Throughout the film, Diouana barely speaks to Madame and Monsieur—only the occasional “Oui, madame,” or “Oui, Monsieur.” Diouana’s silence and eventual suicide “allow Africa and Africans to evade domination and determination of their identity by Europeans,” through her refusal to accept her neo-colonial subjugation and to submit to the demands of Madame and Monsieur (Langford 13). Although Diouana’s suicide may be read as a defeat for African representation, subjectivity and sovereignty, her suicide illustrates a final act of self-assertion: as Langford argues, “the suicide does not reduce her to objecthood, thus constituting a victory for colonial discourse; rather, it demonstrates her ultimate agency” (Langford 19). Sembene’s first film, therefore, reveals the director’s “preference for the visual-gestural, physical representations of film when it comes to inciting resistance” (Langford 20).
Diouana’s role as an enslaved maid in France not only embodies the historical relationship between colonizer and colonized in the narrative of the film, but also in the film’s cinematography. In the opening scene of film, when Diouana arrives in France and travels to her French family’s apartment, “inverts the paradigms both of the colonial travelogue and the colonial memoir” (Langford 15). The cinematic shots of the quaint French riviera village are “highly parodic of the kind of travel film that packages land and people for leisure-time consumption” (Langford 15). Furthermore, the seemingly unfocused view of Diouana in some parts of the film because she is in the background of the apartment, while the camera focuses on the lives of Diouana’s French family. The close up shots of Madame and Monsieur in comparison to the zoomed out shots of Diouana: the former angles give the white Europeans a larger than life feeling on the screen to represented their continued control over former colonial subjects, while the latter angles of Diouana as a maid emphasize her lack of dignity and power in Europe. For example, the scene where Madame and Monsieur talk about Diouana, while she stands in the background of the angled-shot scrubbing dishes in the cramped kitchen. In addition, when Diouana oversleeps and Madame must make her own breakfast, the scene where Madame enters Diouana’s room and stands over her while she sleeps. The high-angled shots that juxtapose Madame, as a powerful figure, and Diouana, as a powerless figure, demonstrate “societal position is always emphasized by the use of slightly high-angled shots,” which renders Diouana “physically smaller” (Dima 65). Madame reminds Diouana, “We are not in Africa anymore.”
The former colonial subject in a metropolitan space is also emphasized in the film’s contrast between black and white in the French family’s home. The cinematography of Diouana’s rivera prison, which juxtaposes Diouna’s black body against absurdly white surroundings, represents the continuation of Senegalese subjugation. The film juxtaposes of her earlier dreams of France in Dakar and her actual experience in France as a neo-colonial slave. In addition, Madame’s handling of Diouana when giving her the apron demonstrates the power dynamics of this form of subjugation. Furthermore, these power dynamics are also illustrated when Madame first choses Diouana as a nanny for her children. Madame approaches a group of young women sitting on a curb against a white wall to find a maid—reminiscent of imagery from the Transatlantic slave trade.
Despite his first feature film’s success among the (Western) international community, an important shift in Sembene’s cinematic work can be seen in his second film, Mandabi: the film not only subverts the commercialization and individualism of First and Second Cinema, but also, pioneers a cinematic aesthetic capable of reclaiming African history, representation, and self-determination in the economy of representation. Although Mandabi is similar to La Noire de… in their exposition French domination, Sembene’s second film “reveals itself to be a complex meditation on the process by which individuals become economic subjects in a consumer society” (Lincoln 343).
Mandabi is a tragic comedy that portrays Ibrahima Dieng, an unemployed Senegalese man, trying to receive a money order from his nephew, Abdou, who works as a street-sweeper in Paris. Throughout the film, Dieng not only encounters the political, social, and economic remnants of the French colonialism, but also experiences the new relationship between colonizer and colonized in a country forever-altered by European domination. At the end of the film, Dieng is ultimately erased from the fabric of his own society after Abdou’s money order results only in greater poverty. The fact his nephew has left Senegal in search of work illustrates the lack of economic opportunity after Senegal gained its independence from France. Abdou’s migration to the French metropole highlights the “symbolic [nature] of the French socioeconomic order in the country” (Zadi 3). The narrative and cinematography of this film reveal how Sembene’s work is deeply “concerned…with articulating that concealed history and exploring some of the consequences of its repression” (Lincoln 349).
According to Samuel Zadi, “the enforcement of the traditional common ownership of goods in the post-colonial State is counterproductive, as it does not contribute to any socio-economic improvement, but brings the few who are fortunate down to the general level of poverty” (Zadi 7). Dieng’s attempt to receive the money order is quickly squandered by the imperial bureaucracy left behind by the French government: in addition, Dieng encounters several people who swindle him into further debt and poverty. Dieng is unable to cash the money order because he does not have a government ID: and when he goes to apply for an ID, Dieng learns he must also obtain a copy of his birth certificate, which does not exist, and a photograph of himself. Throughout the film Dieng is scammed by his fellow Senegalese: he is scammed by a photographer, a woman in the park, and a Senegalese businessman—who ultimately steals Abdou’s money order after he promises Dieng to cash it.. Dieng’s fellow countrymen exploit him, and reveal how “solidarity is also used as a trick to appeal to people’s sense of community or fellowship in order to make them vulnerable to dispossession” (Zadi 6). The unnatural market economy, which has been forcefully imposed on the Senegalese by French imperial power, results in “unproductive profiteering, verging on outright plunder” (Lincoln 352). The film not only highlights the aftermath of French imperialism and colonization, but also illustrates the political and economic influence of France on the Senegalese government and psyche erasure of —as everyone poor and elite in Senegal reflect and adopt European behaviors, interests, and values.
Dieng’s difficulty to support his family in his own country and Abdou’s migration abroad for work are the direct result of French imperialism and colonialism. According to Walter Rodney, a Guyanese historian and political activist, “capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage” (Rodney 10). Under French political and economic domination, the French implemented monoculture in Senegal and Gambia—where eighty-five to ninety percent of earnings were the result of peanut farming—as a means of meeting the consumer needs of the European metropole (Rodney).
Sembene’s film illustrates the aftermath of French imperialism through the juxtaposition of the French-built Dakar and traditional African communities, as “characters who work in the new administration wear Western-style clothing: suits for men and dresses or skirts for women,” while, “people from Ibrahim’s neighborhood dress traditionally” (Zadi 3). Sembene’s choice to shot his second film in Wolof, his own native language, underscores the implicit political nature of Sembene’s films: the use of Wolof—instead of French—and focus on community subvert the conventions of First and Second cinema. The political and business elites of Dakar not only dress like Europeans, but also speak French and act like Europeans. Although Dieng attempts to navigate the rapidly modernizing, and Westernizing, geography of Dakar, he ultimately loses his “sense of self and his place in society,” as traditional West African values and customs are uprooted by Western political, economic, and social hegemony in the former French colony (Lincoln 343).
According to Sarah Lincoln, Dieng’s grotesque meal at the beginning of the film illustrates “the relationship between foreign food and dependency in Africa,” as he gorges himself despite his poverty (Lincoln 348). Another important image in the film that highlights the dependent relationship between France and Senegal is the white baby doll, which appears among Dieng’s children in the background of several scenes. The absurdity of doll’s skin color is not only jarring and reminiscent of French imperialism, but also revealing in its representation material underdevelopment in Senegal as Dieng struggles to provide for his family. Thus, alongside Dieng’s relationship with food and the Westernization of Senegalese culture, the white babydoll illuminate both the historical colonial project and the emerging neo-colonial condition.
Diouana’s question, “Is France that black hole?” as she realizes he inability to self-determine, represents the continuation of Senegal’s subordinate role to French metropole as formerly colonized persons unable to escape the influence of their European colonizers. Ousmane Sembene envisioned the filmmaker of the twentieth century as a modern-day griot—a travelling storyteller in the West African tradition who learned and shared the history of his people. Sembene’s films La Noire de… and Manadabi dramatize and confront the historical, social, and political consequences of French colonialism, as well as the ensuing period of decolonization, for the Senegalese living in a postcolonial world through narrative, imagery, and cinematography. These films thematically deal with the political, social, and economic aftermath of the French colonial project, as well as aesthetically subvert the conventions of Western cinema. An analysis of these films reveals both the subtle and explicit changes in Senegal as a result of French imperialism and Western hegemony—as well as illustrates how Sembene’s films implicitly deal with the politics of Senegal and the globally emerging political structure following decolonization throughout the Tricontinental world.
Dima, Vlad. “Ousmane Sembene’s La Noire De… : Melancholia in Photo, Text, and Film.” Journal of African Cultural Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, Mar. 2014, pp. 56–68. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/13696815.2013.811069.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 1968.
Kennedy, Dane Keith. Decolonization: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Langford, Rachael. “Black and White in Black and White Identity and Cinematography in Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de…/Black Girl (1966).” Studies in French Cinema, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2001, p. 13. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1386/sfci.1.1.13.
Lincoln, Sarah L. “Consumption and Dependency in Mandabi.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 45, no. 3, Sept. 2010, pp. 341–357, doi:10.1177/0021989410376219.
Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Bogle-LÓuverture Publications, 1973.
Zadi, Samuel. “The Irony of ‘African Solidarity’ in Ousmane Sembene’s Mandabi.” Humanities 7.1 (2018): 7. ProQuest. Web. 3 May 2019.