top of page
Search

On Ousmane Sembene Film: I’m a Domestic Worker not Your Slave

By. Marian Yesufu


I’m a Domestic Worker not Your Slave


"To speak as the colonized is therefore to participate in one’s own oppression and to reflect the very structures of your alienation in everything from vocabulary to syntax to intonation." This is Drabinski on Fratz Fanon. No one ever prepares you for the experience of being a domestic worker. No one ever prepares you for the insidious nature in which racism seeps its way in. Life prepares animals for the cold by giving them fur. How does life prepare a black human for the alienation one feels when they come out of the dark cContinent? No words can truly describe it. If one is lucky to be black and exist on this planet one can describe it only as being a Martian coming to planet Earth and seeing people behave in odd manners around you. They speak a language you somewhat understand but never truly. 

I truly wouldn't wish domestic work on my greatest enemy. It's also the same reason why I wouldn't wish Disneyland  work on my greatest enemy. Domestic work is one of the most altruistic experiences. Being able to be of service to others is what a monk would call true living.  But the magnitude and the impact of the pain that one receives at the hands of one's employer is a whole dark underbelly of human pain that just seems unwarranted when one lives the domestic workers experience. After all on the surface like any job it should just be an exchange of service. One works and one gets paid. It should be that simple. But the business of human beings, family and home is never simple. I suppose it's the same feeling one deals with when one also becomes a mother. It's that feeling of I don't know what the hell I'm doing but everyone seems to think that I should and I should know how to do it perfectly. It's insane because no one expects the doctor to learn how to save a heart after just having been a doctor for 2 days. And these are two very separate things being a doctor and a mother.  How does that correlate to being a domestic worker? Well it doesn't. But I do say it to say that being a domestic worker requires wearing many different hats and having many different kinds of bulletproof vests to wear emotionally, psychologically and sometimes physically to bar oneself  from the unintentional pain that can come from an employer, their family, their kids and their friends. For once you are a domestic worker you don't just do domestic work for your employer, but you do domestic work for their community. 


Adapted from the play The Promised Land, Black Girl centers on Djuona. Black Girl is a 1966 French-Senegalese film by writer/director Ousmane Sembène, starring Mbissine Thérèse Diop. This film is about a Senegelese village woman who decides that she wants to be a domestic worker in the bustling city of Dakar, Senegal. She embarks on a journey to get a job. She quickly finds a job as a nanny working for a white French family living in Senegal. Although her being chosen felt like a woman shopping for a turkey or bag at a store, she is chosen and happy to do so. She is first shown a little respect and kindness in Dakar which prompts her to accept an invitation to work in France with the same family. Upon arriving in France she is met with the cold reality of being an Other. From the glances, to the cold shoulder arriving off of the ship, she is OTHERED. The first world offers the dream of upward movement served with a side order of isolation and loneliness, A  lack of community and truly  the lack of help is what our protagonist is faced with throughout this film. Language barriers and racism does not allow for our protagonist to accept the experience one commonly feels in the first world country be it immigrant or a native of the country. She finds her once distant polite employer shapeshifting into an abusive boss who takes advantage of her to the next level. She verbally abuses her, she physically abuses her, she allows a friend of the family at a dinner party to sexually abuse her. And there never seems to be a reason for it other than just some racism and being a shitty person. Haven felt betrayed by what was told to her and meeting the reality of things as different, she embarks on a journey within herself to claim her freedom in whichever way she can. It inevitably ends with her claiming her life. 


IDEOLOGY

Agata Frymus uses a quote in her article that suggests “perhaps we can take inspiration from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s famous plea “to make the silences speak for themselves.” The isolation one feels living in a country where wealth and opportunity and dreams are painted as the ideal path to happiness, is simply not worth the isolation to our protagonist. She quickly feels the walls closing in and the dark abyss of loneliness engulfs her. How could she understand the lonely rhythm? The gift of our poverty and poor countries in Africa is community. This acceptance of isolation takes years to understand and decades to accept. Our protagonist is a warrior from the moment she lands in France. As the rhythm stops beating that communal beat, she preps herself for an emotional battle. Others May see the first world and its glitz and glamor only to months, years later, have the wool pulled over their eyes and see the space for what it is . Which is a lonely, hurt, naive, kind, difficult and evil consumer ridden space called the first world countries. Isolation can come in many forms. And with our protagonist, she paints the picture so clearly that she is in a jail that is her bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room. That, that is what she is here for and that outside of those things, what is she in this space called France for? That struggle to find identity that struggle to find connection inevitably robs her of her life.


It begs the question of whether one would rather live in a collectivist country versus an individualistic country. Many of us who come from collectivist countries are homesick for the companionship and the village in the community that wraps itself around you when you have children, when you are grieving, when you are celebrating wins, these are the things that allow for individuals to feel not alienated and not isolated. 


PSYCHOANALYSIS

Beti Ellerson talks about how “Identity has been a persistent theme in African filmmaking since its inception. The idea of a ‘triple consciousness’ explored by Akosua Adoma Owusu problematises the theme of dual identities in Me Broni Ba (2009),” Of Course W.E.B DuBois talks about double consciousness in his book The Souls of Black Ffolks. To be a woman, African and immigrant makes our protagonist move from double consciousness in Dakar to triple consciousness in France adding the gaze of whites to her already dual consciousness. Identity is a recurring theme throughout this film. It begs the question where is my place in this community? The protagonist found for a moment her place. She was the nanny. It was a clear and tangible thing she could build her identity around. That comes crashing to the ground when she is met with France and its kitchen, bathtub, and she is cook, and she is maid. She has an identity crisis? She says who am I? I am a nanny. She says it over and over again. If I'm the nanny then where are the kids? Oftentimes when trying to find oneself, one seeks approval from the person that one idolizes. The sad truth is that our protagonist idolized  her European employer for the way she wore her hair and the clothes that she wore and the shoes that she wore. And bit by bit, blow by blow with every hit of abuse that this woman gives her, our protagonist slowly sheds a piece of what this antagonist gifted her with. From shoes, to hair, to dress, to finally her white nightgown. She claims her identity back by tying her hair back in her natural style she reclaims her identity by putting back her African clothing she reclaims her identity by taking back that Mask. She reclaims her honor by giving the husband back the money. 

What is true courage? Without glamorizing suicide, one can still say that it's a courageous act. To free oneself of their agonizing pain and feeling of imprisonment and taking one's own life can be a true act of courage, sad courage but courage nonetheless. Courage can be found in taking a mask back in choosing not to eat and choosing not to work. I think of the suffragette movement and how effective their hunger strikes were. I think of prison hunger strikes. Now think of Gandhi and his hunger strikes and various other monks' hunger strikes in trying to show the powerful that they can take all they want but they cannot take one's body. One's body is still there and no food that one entices one with can take that from them. The psychology behind courage is extremely interesting to me.  Our protagonist is the embodiment of courage. She is courageous as soon as she walks out of her village, out of what she knows and goes into the Posh and Urban parts of Dakar. After door knocks and receiving blow after blow of No’s she is courageous. Courage is what it  takes to  climb up a monument that seems to be honoring very important people. She's courageous morning after morning wearing her nice tailored clothing and her high heel shoes to work even after her abusive employer says take those things off you are not to do this. Her last attempts at connecting with another human in a foreign land.  It is courageous to stand up to someone that is supposed to be more powerful.


REPRESENTATIONAL ANALYSIS

The voice of the poor is represented as the voice of reason throughout this film. The filmmaker uses the narrator to really let us understand the point of view of this film. This story is the voice of the marginalized, poor uneducated domestic worker. It's a very clear and specific voice. Speaking to the disenfranchised in both Senegal and in France. Sembene asks the question with our protagonist, who is a poor African woman in the diaspora? She is opinionated, she is expressive, she is trusting, she is lonely and courageous. The 1960s saw a lot of Independence for many African countries. It also means an end of colonial rule by many major European countries. One sees the relationships of colonial rule and the psychological traumas of colonial rule linger in Black Girl.  The whole film is a conversation about early post colonial Europe's relationship to Africa.  One can’t help but see the carolations between the racism of post slavery era of the Americas and the racism of post-colonial Africa. 


A touch on the African Male Gaze. The African woman who looks to the west is branded a femme fatale. I find it interesting that our filmmaker uses our protagonist as a cautionary tale for what happens when one wants to be like the Westerner. Although by nature,  African women have always been independent, this filmmaker I believe through his male gaze brands this protagonist as a sort of femme fatale. She wants to be like her white French boss, she longs to be French like, She dreams of traveling to different parts of France that the Madam promised her. And in wanting to do so, finds herself a captured slave and inevitably someone who must kill themselves to find freedom.  I see this is similar to the film Chinatown. The female femme fatale in Chinatown although a victim of ancestral rape is branded Femme Fatale and inevitably dies and is never free of her pain in life but perhaps is free of her pain in the afterlife. At least in Black Girl our protagonist's family, although poor, are protected by the walls of their collective community in their Townshend. Our protagonist's family rejects the money. The young boy takes back his mask. The mask has a journey from toy, to gift, to objectified symbol, to reclaimed gift and back to now hopeful toy.


Mellencamp says,”when the enunciation shifts into women's minds and history we cease thinking like victims and become empowered.” Black Girl personifies that in terms of African decolonization. Her suicide shows us that they could have her body but not her soul. The hardest thing about the post-colonial experience, more specifically from the African woman's relationship to the postcolonial experience is always a blurred thing. Why? Because we always seem to be at the intersection of woman, African and colonial experience. What does it mean to be African and woman? What does it mean to be African and woman in a post-colonial Africa? What does it mean to be African and woman living in Europe in a post colonial experience? Black Girl leaves us  with more questions than answers. But I think the questions allow inevitably a through line to various truths to various conclusions to various options. To various freedoms.


 For our protagonist in this film death was the ultimate freedom. When we unravel the relationship between our protagonist and her antagonist we see two things: that they're both women and that they're both alone in their existence and they both find themselves attached to each other. One of course Lord's over the other and the other a servant but both trapped. They are both trapped in servitude to husband, to child, to family and to country. What I think Sembene does so well is really create this cautionary tale. A cautionary tale that tells the African woman that if she comes overseas uneducated, unable to read or write, she will be at the mercy of white or european masters. Our protagonist journeys into a more metropolis part of Dakar and  sees Senegalese upper middle class Senegalese women walking down the street and in that moment she sees true beauty. Is the filmmaker suggesting in a short glimpse that the women in their country, elegantly educated are the epitome of freedom?  Possibly. Our protagonist even in Senegal is uneducated and unable to read and write. She is still searching for something. I think that something is, freedom. But what is freedom? For an African Woman perhaps it’s  the power to read, write, have access to money and be a worldly traveler? The protagonist travels, she is given fine clothes, fine shoes to wear, but she is trapped in what looks like a 600 square foot French apartment. Sheila repeats over and over again agonizing over the fact that she is not a cook and she is not a cleaner. She is  a nanny. This French woman has brought her here under false pretenses and that is the ultimate betrayal. A betrayal that cuts her deeply, a betrayal that keeps her agonizing and depressed about her situation in France, a betrayal that makes her take back her gift, the mask.


The role of a domestic worker is that of both intimate and professional. It is an experience that only a domestic worker can explain. It is a never-ending job and it is truly a thankless job. It is a job that requires one to be seen and not heard. To almost be a fly on the wall making beautiful artwork out of the cleanliness of one's home, making children well behaved without showing too much of your techniques and making the home and the atmosphere move to a rhythm that is the liking of the owner. Really being truly a fly on the wall. Making the home a place of comfort and beauty and joy and then stepping away. The domestic worker's role is not to speak about the marks they've left on a home, instead the home should speak of it on its own. Where a lawyer can say I've won my case, a domestic worker can merely nod internally at one's work. It's a nightmare job when one works for monstrous people. One hopes for a relationship that is amicable and healthy and it's not riddled with someone being taken advantage of. But let's face it, you add domesticity to anything and it invites itself to all of the manic problematic tension, riddled energy of what it takes to live and coexist in family and relationship. The job of a domestic worker does not require a degree but I happen to think that a domestic worker is one that is not only a great psychologist but they're also typically empathetic and good at the task that they need to do. Be it taking care of children, cooking or cleaning or all of the above. This film still resonates with anyone starting anew or marginalized. This is a 1960s yet it feels so fresh and timely in terms of the pov of the marginalized voice.


FORMALISM

In the Mise en Scene of the French home one sees the stark difference of white and black from the stripes on the door to the stripes on the floor to our protagonist's white and black dress. Yes the film is in black and white . At times she almost looks like a painting. A painting resembling The Girl with the Pearl earrings almost.

The use of sound, the use of voiceover gives such a stark contrast to the experience our protagonist is experiencing. She is sinking deeper into an abyss with the v.o but the experience of doing her job is business as usual.  It provides for such a use of Dramatic Tension and Irony that as the audience, I just want something to free her of her sorrow. Her words free her. The sound of the european othering her versus the sound in her head versus the sound echoing from Dakar in Senegal are haunting. He is setting us up for a haunting yet freeing experience. The musical score throughout but most poignant at end when the employer returns to our protagonist's home, one feels the sense that the music drives him to the village and also swiftly drives him out. He is not welcomed. His money is not welcomed. The Black suitcase filled with his wife's trinkets is not welcomed. It’s  incredible how the absence of sound and the pounding rhythms of a drum can elicit the same haunting experience.


 The cinematography  is an entire character on it’s own in this film. Sembene uses a lot of scenic shots in both France and Dakar. One gets a clear difference between villages in Dakar, metropolis Dakar and France look like from our Protagonists point of view. He uses high angled and low angled shots to show the power dynamics between our protagonist and her employers. The small spaces in the french apartment makes one feel trapped watching this film. Versus In Dakar, the open landscape, the defiant climbing on top of an important monument. Shooting from above and below is used throughout the film. We get a sense of characters who are trapped in small spaced versus freedom in larger spaces. Even the fact that everyone walks around in Senegal vs when put in a 1st world experience one moves around in compact spaces like the car her employer picks her up in. The home they live in Senegal vs the apartment in France. Yet supposably, they are on vacation in France, yet Senegal is where it seems they seem to enjoy paradise. 


CONCLUSION

The domestic worker works 10 times harder and gets paid only once for the work. Yes, I do understand why our protagonists ultimately chooses freedom by way of suicide. Because if at least one is educated they have a way out. If one has no way out and this is their only option, would one not wish for death to come soon as well? Mellencamp  quotes Bell hooks, “As Red and Black people begin to decolonize our minds, we give ourselves back to memory and we acknowledge that the ancestors speak to us in a place beyond written history.” Dijouna in Black Girl, frees herself and becomes an ancestor.














Works Cited 


Black Girl. Directed by. Ousmane Sembene, New Yorker Video, 1966.

Drabinski, John, "Frantz Fanon", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019                      Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/frantz-fanon/>.

Ellerson, Beti: African Women in Cinema: An overview. In: Jyoti Mistry, Antje Schuhmann        (Hg.): Gaze Regimes. Film and Feminisms in Africa. Johannesburg: Wits University Press 2005, S. 1– 9. DOI: https://doi.org/10.25969/mediarep/12173.

Frymus, Agata. “Researching Black Women and Film History.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and   Screen Media, Archival Opportunities and Absences in Women’s Film and Television Histories Dossier, no. 20, 2020, pp. 228–236,

Mellencamp, Patricia. “Making History: Julie Dash.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 1994, pp. 76–101. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3346614. Accessed 17 Nov. 2022.




0 views0 comments
bottom of page