Black Girl & Borom Sarret: Two films by Ousmane Sembène
Often credited as the father of African film, the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène is given long-overdue deluxe home video treatment in a stellar dual-format release (Region B/2) from the BFI. The title of Sembène’s debut feature, Black Girl (La Noire de…, 1966), references Max Ophuls’s masterpiece Madame de… (1953), and while Ophuls’s camera pirouettes around Danielle Darrieux’s constrained society woman, Sembène’s camerawork is direct, intimate and confrontational in its portrait of a woman hopelessly trapped by the lingering effects of colonialism.
Mbissine Thérèse Diop stars as Diouana, a young woman who takes a job working for a rich French couple (Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine), moving from her home in Dakar to the Mediterranean resort city of Antibes. Diouana anticipates a life of caring for the couple’s children and exploring a brand new country. Instead, she’s saddled with additional cooking and cleaning responsibilities and her sightseeing is limited to the car ride from the boat to the house when she first arrives. As Diouana says in one of her flat, resigned voiceovers, France is merely a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom to her.
Sembène’s politically charged film runs on an engine of focused righteous anger, its characters emblematic of a poisonous symbiosis. The couple’s fundamental misunderstanding of Diouana’s humanity is ugly and patronizing — to them, she’s simply a task-oriented automaton or an exotic trinket to show off to “less-cultured” friends. Diouana is a woman isolated, stripped of any agency and relegated to an even more inconsequential position than her life back in Senegal, shown through flashbacks.
Her alienation is strikingly realized by Sembène, who frames her pinned against lily-white backgrounds. The couple’s living spaces are notably unadorned; one wall is home only to a tribal mask given to them as a gift from Diouana when they first met. Soon, it will become an object of struggle as she engages in a futile fight to reclaim at least a portion of her identity, cultural, personal or otherwise.
The set also includes Sembène’s first film, Borom Sarret (1963), a 20-minute short about a cart driver whose generosity is only rewarded with indifference. It’s another potent portrait of a society stuck in a cycle of disenfranchisement.
Sourced from new 4K restorations carried out by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers of both films are absolutely stunning, far improving on any available DVD version. Tight grain structure, incredible levels of fine detail and superb grayscale separation await viewers, and clean-up is impeccable, with only some remnants of degradation visible in the dinner party sequence of Black Girl. Black Girl is also presented in an alternate version that features one color sequence when Diouana arrives in France — a fleeting glimpse at the glamour she imagined — and these shots are lovely and vibrant. Audio is uncompressed PCM tracks that sound fresh and clean.
Extras include excerpts of a 2005 interview with star Diop, an illustrated chronology of Sembène’s career and the 1994 documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema, sure to be an essential companion piece to the forthcoming doc Sembène! The co-director of that film, Samba Gadjigo, and the director’s son Alain contribute new essays to the included booklet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, BFI’s Black Girl/Borom Sarret Blu-ray rates:
The Films (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***
BFI / 1966 & 1963 / Black and white & color / 1.33:1 / 60 min & 20 min / £19.99 / Region B/2
Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.