Three times the length of his earlier short Borom Sarret, Ousmane Sembene's feature debut aims for the same condensed storytelling -- too much fumbled Nouvelle Vague fiddling gets in the way, yet it remains a remarkably resonant portrait of cultural (hence, spiritual) dislocation and death. Picked out of a street corner where Africans looking for work are surveyed by trendy whites in shades, the title character (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) gets transplanted from her Dakar home to the Riviera apartment of a French couple (Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine), where her dreams of lushness shrink as her babysitting gig balloons into a full-time stint as maid, cook, and all-around exotic trophy. "Why am I here? I will not be her slave anymore," she seethes in her narration, yet her revolt is kept unspoken, sulking in bed cloaking depths of pained cultural displacement, the black figure slumped in an ivory bathtub, bloody razor in hand. As always with Sembene, the narrative snowballs meaning from throwaway details novelistically planted in the flow (a trio of strolling Senegalese businessmen, radical posters plastered in the boyfriend's flat), so that a tribal mask grows from token object d'art to tug-of-war prize to, ultimately, the accusing spirit of a continent still reeling from the shackle welts. Symbolism or not, Sembene's depiction of oppressor-oppressed dynamics is far less simplistic than usually noted -- the Europeans are not so much villainous as complacently clueless to the suffering of their servant, Diop's zombified mutiny amounts to sullen compliance, with both sides locked in a cycle of exploitation and servitude. The circularity of the structure, then, serves as clarification of the mechanics of colonialism: a black girl posed against the harsh polished floors of the French homeland, a white boss guiltily shoving cash at her mother back in the village, and a little African boy peeking from behind the mask, in medium shot at Fontaine, then finally, in close-up, at us. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce