Sometimes you don’t need your film to be two hours long to make an impact. La Noire de is a 50-minute condemnation of mid-century European attitudes toward Africans. The film is the directorial debut of Ousmane Sembene, who is widely regarded as the first African director to make waves in the international film market, making it a critical piece of world cinema.
In the film, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a young Senegalese woman with aspirations of a higher-class life, is hired to work overseas as the housemaid of a wealthy French couple.
Sembene depicts both Diouana’s present as a beleaguered worker paraded around as an accoutrement by her insensitive employers and her past, taking the job in the hope it will lead to her partaking in French culture and society.
Unlike the husband and wife (Robert Fontaine and Anne-Marie Jelinek) who work her to the bone and come to Senegal to sample the local culture from a safe distance, Diouana has no such option in France. She’s more of a slave than a caretaker, never leaving her employers’ home.
La Noire de provides both a cinematic history lesson, showing the origins of African film, and an encapsulation of the perils of colonialism and the racist attitudes that stem from it. It comes from a place of frustration, but never preaches to the audience.
The scenes inside the French domicile have a flatness to them, with art from Africa decorating the walls, but not much else. The flashbacks to Senegal, however, feature a noticeable warmth. The people there live in poverty and lack many skills that might be considered basic living requirements, but it’s a community looking for something better. These scenes are shot with both love and pity.
The boorish, racist French elite Diouana faces later in the film get no such visual sympathy.
If you have even a passing interest in world cinema, I highly recommend you watch La Noire de this coming weekend. It’s not just an “important” film as a landmark for African directors, it’s a legitimately incisive and dramatic watch. Find time to slot it in; you’ll only need an hour.
Portland State’s 5th Avenue Cinema screens La Noire De Feb. 2–4. All 5th Ave screenings are free to PSU students and faculty w/ ID, $5 general admission and $4 for all other students and seniors.