Complying with your Oppressor

by Rfran4 on December 6, 2013 - 9:14pm


No matter how SMALL or grand the scale of integration between cultures throughout history, human rights come into play because power and oppression often dominate these types of relationships. Using the concrete elements of dialogue, symbols, and characters, Ousmane Sembène’s film Black Girl explores the transcultural representation of human rights through Senegalese and French culture when a young Senegalese girl, Diouana, becomes the governess of an elite French couple. When two cultures integrate the “human rights” of the subordinate people are frequently violated and overlooked because they are often complicit in their oppression.

In Black Girl the words and actions of Senegalese characters help distinguish the characteristics of French culture and vice versa. Diouana is beyond ecstatic when she receives the job as governess for the rich French couple, "I am going to France” she yells while dancing on the monument steps. Once in France she is seen in high heels, a polka-dot dress, a necklace resembling pearls and her hair bundled underneath a conservative European wig. To Diouana France is the land of dreams come true, she will be rich, free, and not have to work like an animal. But Diouana’s ethnocentric ways blind her, there is another side to the French-- they are actually quite shallow. Her boyfriend warns her that her new job is a form of “domestic slavery” but she is so excited that she doesn’t bother listening. In France she cooks, cleans, babysits, and does laundry all without pay. On the other hand, The Senegalese are a naïve, needy, and oppressed culture. When the French woman is choosing a governess at the village square, about 15 eager Senegal women ambush her. They are a poor country, always looking for an opportunity to work so that they can support their families. In doing so they are tricked into domestic slavery by the European bourgeois.

Through social interactions Sembene shows what integration of the two cultures has done to Senegal’s government which is run by the French-dominated African bourgeoisie. Diouana passes two of these elite representatives in the city one day and overheard their conversation: "It is not an obstruction." "It is in your own interest." "It is in my district." "Not so loud." "Think of your family… Ease off a bit." This selfish capitalist attitude revealed characteristics of the French, who used their superiority to justify the exploitation of these young Senegalese woman.

Sembène avoids focusing on acts of confrontation between the cultures in terms of violence in this film. But he uses the reoccurring appearance of the mask and Diouana’s introversion to stress the struggles of class, culture, and economics and how they help create conflict between the cultures. Scenes are used as metaphors to symbolize the oppression of the Senegalese. The scarcity of work and the measures it takes to find a job made it hard for Senegalese women and so they looked toward the French for work. But are these conflicts considered acts of confrontation if these individuals collude with the oppressor?

            Diouana’s circumstance was only one of many. Madame herself is in an unfortunate domestic position herself where she feels neglect from her husband. She too wants to feel as if she has some sort of control, so she does the same to Diouana. Madame who is portrayed as a very flat character to put more emphasis on Diouana, detects Diouana’s discomfort and even though she knows what it feels like, she overlooks it.

             “History teaches us that, in certain circumstances, it is very easy for the foreigner to impose his domination on a people. But it also teaches us that, whatever may be the material aspects of this domination, it can be maintained only by the permanent organized repression of the cultural life of the people concerned” (Amilcar Cabral). Indeed, it was very easy for the French to dominate Senegal, they were French first and human second. Using different elements to tie together the different aspects of integrated cultures we come to the conclusion the Senegalese need to take it upon themselves to stop complying with the oppressor. These conflicts cannot be solved by one individual but by the society as a whole if they take the time to understand the relationship between their country and this foreign country. There is a thin line between power and oppression but there is a thinner line between ignorance and oppression.

Black Girl. Dir. Ousmane Sembène. Perf. Mbissine Thérèse Diop and Anne-Marie Jelinek. New Yorker Video, 1966. Film.

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