Female domestic labor
and Third World politics in
La Noire De …

by Lieve Spass

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 26-27
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

For Ousmane Sembene, Africa's foremost film director, film can make visible the abuses of power and render manifest what governments would like to keep hidden. Film can speak to the Western World about its oppressive power and to Senegal, his country, and to other Third World countries about their oppression. Film, Ousmane believes, overcomes the problem presented by Third World illiteracy, since it is accessible to literates and illiterates alike. This explains why Sembene has turned to Wolof instead of French in his recent films. In using film to draw attention to the Third World/ Western dichotomy, Sembene contributes considerably to the development of political film.

Ousmane Sembene was born in Senegal in 1923. He started life as a fisherman and then went to l'Ecole de Céramique at Marcassoum. From there he went on to Dakar and worked as a plumber, bricklayer and apprentice mechanic. He served in the French army in WW2. After the war he became a docker and trade union leader in Marseilles. Anxious to make films, he turned to Jean Rouch and other filmmakers, but he failed to gain their support. In Moscow, he spent a year learning film under Stalin-favored director Mark Donskoi. Sembene's most important films are these: BOROM SARRET (1963) depicting the day of a Dakar cart driver; TAUW (1971) rendering the despair of a 20-year-old Senegalese who looks for work on the docks of Dakar; EMITAI (1971) in which the women of the village provide resistance in a clash with French colonialists. XALA (1974) shows the paralyzing effect of some of Africa's own traditions as well as Western oppression, an oppression prolonged by Senegal's government. Finally, the most recent film, CEDDO (1977), censored in Senegal, focuses on Islamic structures of oppression in the early period of Islamization Sembene's personal experiences and artistic achievements merge. Each of his films questions an existing social problem and also reflects Sembene's political background, i.e., that of a Europeanized African intellectual with American ties, a communist artist influenced by neorealism.

LA NOIRE DE… is a film rooted in Senegalese society. That is to say, the story of the black "girl" does not represent a self-contained story but a narrative originating in an existing society. LA NOIRE DE..., therefore, exemplifies the importance of some key fiction films for a study of society. The French title, LA NOIRE DE..., contains an ambiguity lost in the English translation, BLACK GIRL. The ellipsis following the preposition de leaves unspecified whether that de means from, that is to say, coming from a specific place, or whether it is the possessive of. The latter would indicate that the black “girl" is someone's property. The ellipsis evokes both meanings in French.

LA NOIRE DE…'s visual composition exploits the obvious black/white dichotomy. The black-and-white cinematography provides the formal and semantic basis of the film. Diouana wears a white dress with black dots; her suitcase is black. The apartment seems entirely in a black/white color scheme. The food prepared falls into the same categories — black coffee, sterilized milk, white rice. Even the whiskey consumed generously by the Frenchman bears the label "Black and White." The music also shows such oppositions. Western music alternates with African music, juxtaposing on another level the black and white contrast. The opposition is enacted most dramatically when the camera focuses on Diouana's inert black body in the white bathtub.

In a facile reading, such an opposition might seem the mark of an inexperienced filmmaker. Yet the film, although one of Sembene's earliest, already contains too many signs of subtlety to allow for such interpretation. The obvious binary structure of the film corresponds to the crude binary system that underlies any system of oppression and exploitation, a system that divides the world into two opposing categories: the oppressed and the oppressors. While erecting a network of black/ white contrasts, the film does not establish a male/ female opposition along the same lines. The black woman is most directly exploited not by a man but by a white woman. Moreover, she obtains permission from her mother, and not from a man, to follow her employer to France. Domestic labor might in this sense seem to be presented as a form of all-female exploitation. But the context for the domestic labor created in the film suggests a link between female domestic labor and the general political structure.

Illiterate, Diouana has no knowledge of France besides that gained from the alluring verbal reports of the French women and from the glossy pictures of an Elle magazine brought by her boyfriend on one of their meetings in Dakar. Her image of life in France springs entirely from these representations of women. She expects to find beautiful shops, where she will buy elegant clothes from wages she earns. The Elle women in bathing suits lead her to imagine her own picture taken on the beach and sent to Dakar, where "they will be envious." Instead, Diouana virtually becomes a prisoner in a French apartment. The France she dreams of is replaced by the sum of the rooms she cleans, the noise of the quarrelling neighbors upstairs, or the "black hole" she perceives from the window as she looks out over the dark Antibes bay.

The more Diouana enacts the image represented to her in Dakar, the more she incurs the anger of the French woman, who contributed to the image creation. Instead of buying beautiful clothes, Diouana gets scorned for looking too elegant in her mistress's old clothes. She is given an apron and required to take off her high-heeled, Western-style shoes. While conveying dismay in her interior monologue, she never utters a word out loud besides, "Yes, Monsieur," and "Yes, Madame." The most painful contrast between expectation and reality concerns "her picture on the beach." In fact, she is never photographed by the sea. Instead, the viewer sees her dead body in the bathtub. Immediately afterwards, there’s a cut to holidaying people in bathing suits on the beach who are reading the account of her suicide, which now has become a journalistic story in the Faits Divers (local occurrences) section of the newspaper.

Although the film focuses almost exclusively on Diouana's situation, her exploitation and death are not rendered as isolated events. The film links them to the death of other Senegalese in Europe, namely those who died in World Wars I and II. In her study, Marsha Landy mentions this link. However, the political dimension of this reference needs stronger emphasis, especially in the light of the boyfriend's attitude. Shortly before Diouana's departure for France, she and the boyfriend are near the monument commemorating these wars. A brief vision of veterans putting a wreath on the monument flashes through the friend's mind. When Diouana, unaware of the monument's importance, dances barefoot on it, rejoicing over her imminent departure for France, the friend becomes outraged at Diouana's "sacrilege" and tells her to come down immediately.

The sequence has a twofold implication. First, as Landy mentions, Diouana's dance on a war monument prophesies her death. Second, Diouana's departure for France and her suicide there become linked to the Senegalese political involvement in World Wars I and II. The friend's respect for the monument reveals the pride he takes in the courage and sacrifice of his Senegalese compatriots. However, by linking the two forms of sacrifice, the film suggests his idealism is politically naive. Diouana's going to France parallels Senegalese soldiers' participation in these wars. These soldiers had gone to fight for France's freedom; they were "honored" to die for the "fatherland." Similarly, Diouana's work frees the French woman, and her death, although self-inflicted, is not unlike that of a soldier. Her belongings are returned to Dakar. Her clothes, like the uniform of a slain soldier, are taken back to the mother and a sum of money offered in compensation. (1) The linking of Diouana with the soldiers suggests that behind the overt exploitation lies another one, deeper, covert, and political.

In France, the white woman is depicted as the manifest oppressor, openly hostile and overtly disrespectful. In contrast, her husband, the white male employer, is portrayed as a humane and mildly courteous Frenchman, as a few of his gestures suggest. He carries Diouana's suitcase, inquires about her trip, and picks up money which she drops. He shows understanding of her depressive mood, comprehends her possible nostalgia and need to go out, and even suggests a holiday for her. Moreover, the film does not depict a stereotypical sexual exploitation of white male employer over black female servant. On the contrary, the film stresses its very absence — with a situation in which such sexual abuse could occur when semi-drunk and bored, the employer remains alone in the apartment with the black maid. In a physical confrontation between his wife and Diouana over the African mask, his wife sees only Diouana's "ingratitude." In contrast, he points out to his wife that the mask, although once given by Diouana, still belongs to the maid.

The incident offers a striking opposition between the husband's placidity and the wife's vicious anger. In fact, Diouana's exploitation displaces the French woman's own possible exploitation. When Diouana rebels, the servant represents a real threat to the wife, but not to the husband, as is apparent from Diouana's own remark:

"Never again will she tell me: ‘Diouana, wash the shirts of Monsieur.’"

Since he is not directly threatened by Diouana's possible rebellion, the husband can be civil and more humane. Yet he still functions in the general context of exploitative capitalism. The husband is through his placidity, peripheral, and through his capital, central. Upon seeing Diouana's distress, he immediately offers to pay her. After her death, it is he who offers monetary compensation to the mother in Dakar. Both daughter and mother refuse the money. In their refusal, they reject a system in which labor becomes a commodity and money a means to pay for death.

Diouana's domestic oppression, voiced and enacted mainly by the white woman, veils an entire political system of exploitation in which not only does the husband take part but which extends to Diouana's own country. In fact, the film suggests that the Senegalese government and the black elite at large participate in maintaining capitalist oppression. Friendly relations between France and Senegal, advocated by President Senghor, are clearly criticized in the film by Sembene. At a party in the couple's apartment, discussing their own working conditions in Senegal, they explain the material advantages laid down by government agreements: a large part of their salary paid in France, housing provided, bi-annual repatriation to France, etc.. When the guests inquire about safety, the colonials reply, "As long as Senghor is there, things are safe."(2)

Although overtly critical of such agreements that institutionalize and promote colonialism, LA NOIRE DE… also shows that oppression is sometimes solidly established in the Third World country itself. In fact, the film suggests that the intellectual group to whom Diouana's boyfriend belongs and black politicians both condone oppression. While clearly against Diouana's leaving for France as a domestic servant, the Senegalese boyfriend does nothing to deter her from her decision. He espouses African values, visually depicted by a flag in his room honoring the Congo's advocate of freedom, Patrice Lumumba. Yet he also displays naive pride at the political suicide of Senegalese soldiers, and contributes to Diouana's consumer mythification of France by providing her the glossy Elle magazine.

The film reveals on several occasions the ambiguous attitude of the Senegalese black elite. As Diouana looks for work in the fashionable sections of Dakar, she passes three handsomely dressed Senegalese politicians who are leaving the National Assembly. Upon seeing Diouana in African dress, one of the three exhorts the others to speak more softly, clearly fearing that this representative of “the people" ("I have been elected by the people”) might hear their political machinations to promote their self-interest.

The political elite is not the only target of Sembene's criticism; he also comments on the intellectual class represented by public letter-writer, teacher, and students. The first flashback in the film, a shot in Dakar, shows an African mask which a little boy, presumably Diouana's brother, is wearing. The public letter-writer sits at a nearby table and orders the boy to take off the African mask, an order which suggests a rejection of African values in favor of literacy. The various shots of the local school, that also draw attention to Senegal's growing class of literates, reveal an all-male attendance. In fact, not a single Senegalese woman is seen reading in the film, while men are frequently seen with a book in their hand. Literacy thus becomes identified with a male/ female dichotomy. The fact that women stay illiterate has disastrous results for Diouana. The mother and daughter tie, a tie stressed in the film, gets brutally ruptured when Diouana goes to France. The contact between the two women requires writing, i.e., male mediation. In France, the French woman can write and Diouana's mother has asked her to write on Diouana's behalf because that woman "is also a mother." Nevertheless, the husband replies and translates Diouana's silence into sentences. He writes that she's doing well. Such a reply, initiated and composed entirely by her employer, raises Diouana's suspicion: she cannot read her mother's letter, her mother cannot write, and Diouana cannot write an answer. The letter triggers Diouana's final drama as she realizes that she had no defense: she speculates.

"If I could write, I would tell them..."

Her death becomes her way to speak and write rebellion, a rebellion expressed earlier in her fight over the mask.

The acts that precede Diouana's death in France are repeated in Dakar. Her refusal of money is reenacted by her mother. Her taking back the mask is repeated by the little boy. The first gesture rejects Western economic exploitation, the second reappropriates African ones. Significantly, three illiterate Senegalese of three different generations carry out these acts of protest.

However, the male/ female treatment here falls prey to a traditional prejudice. The film has the woman killing herself and the boy chasing the French man: woman is victim, boy is male avenger of the future. The film uses the female figure as a metaphor for colonialism. Sembene exposes some aspects of sexual oppression but does not treat the sexism per se as a political reality that can be dealt with, fought and changed. While using the woman as metaphor artistically to solve some basic conflict, nevertheless, the director is caught in unresolved contradictions. And certain very fundamental issues of African feminism, such as polygamy, are not touched upon in this film. In LA NOIRE DE… neo-colonial exploitation cuts across the male/ female opposition and is seen operating in the disguise of a political cause such as World Wars I and II or a promise of freedom to participate in a consumer-oriented society. The film works best as a militant inquiry into neocolonialism in its many forms.


1. Cf. Sembene's own statement about monetary compensation from France in an interview with Jeune Afrique (27 January 1973):

Jeune Afrique: Do you receive a pension?
Sembene: From whom?
Jeune Afrique: From the French army.
Sembene: No, and I do not want one.

2. Michael Crowder in Senegal: A Study of French Assimilation Policy writes:

“[It] becomes increasingly galling to Senegalese in Dakar, where unemployment is rising, to see Europeans doing jobs which could be easily undertaken by themselves." (p. 85)

It is significant that the Senegalese Mission to the United Nations in New York was very unwilling or unable to give any information on Sembene. When I expressed astonishment over the fact that the Senegalese official on the telephone had not seen any of Sembene's films, he replied promptly:

"I have not missed anything in not seeing his films."