La Noire de…

Sembène’s treatment of voice in La Noire de… is established at the film’s outset by coordinating Diouna’s question, “Will someone be waiting for me?”, with the back and forth movements of her searching head. This traditional rhythm of back and forth, question and answer, is expressed again in the film’s overall narrative structure: Diouna’s immediate experiences and troubled interior dialogue find answer in her memories. In this sense, La Noire de… is a film that—although markedly imbued with a rare primacy of the present—holds truth in its own prefigured past.

While the explicitly stated reason for Diouna’s silence is her complete inability to speak French, the rather large amount of the time she had been shown to have spent among the French as well as her ability to understand French suggests that there is much more to this repression than a mere, dismissible pragmatism. Indeed, for her employers, Diouna is little more than a humanoid tool, and it might be considered too uncanny for a humanoid tool to speak.   In examining the two ways in which Diouna’s employers attempt to make actual her situation as a tool—first through Madame and then through Monsieur—Sembène demonstrates his remarkable depth in revealing the nuances of neocolonialism’s evils.

1.

Where Monsieur conceals his own guilt by patronizingly positing Diouna as a kind of complex commodity, Madame viciously refuses even these allowances, opting instead to completely objectify Diouna into a means for her own, confused pleasure. Madame simply does not perceive the kind of autonomy in Diouna that would constitute her as a subject. This is, of course, a picture of the French attitude to Senegal as a whole. Indeed, Sembène was certainly one of the first to see how, even when the Senegalese had been given a true political voice—either  through their independence or through the medium of film—it was always, in one way or another, spoken for them by their former colonizers and, even worse still, often perpetuated a colonial agenda. Of course, this international affect is not merely analogous. It is very much a double articulation in that it has its roots in the same kinds of individual perceptions that reduce Diouna to a mere instrument for enjoyment. What can be a more telling example of this dangerous conception than Europe’s turn of the century “Scramble for Africa” where countless human beings were traded and partitioned like some kind of abstract, geographic game board?

Through La Noire de… Sembène protests this particularly blatant mode of objectification in two ways. First, he deprives Diouna of an empirical, politically viable voice in favor of an action-based, symbolic style of resistance. Second, he relentlessly floods the screen and soundtrack with the richness of Diouna’s inner life so that we, the audience, may never forget—indeed, almost become overwhelmed with—the truly infinite depth of subjectivity. In this way, it is all that much more devastating when we are forced to experience the haunting silence Sembène imposes upon us after Diouna’s suicide: the haunting silence of an object.

It could even be said that Diouna’s silence is, while on one hand an imposed adversity, also in itself a means of resistance by which she defiantly refuses to participate within the very discourse of her oppressors, effectively undermining the legitimacy of their language. This is most notably depicted in the scene in which Diouna purposefully over-literalizes Madame’s command to remove her heels; Diouna leaves them in the middle of the floor. The latter tactic is not unlike how anti-colonial filmmakers like Sembène himself radically refused to submit to the dominant European filmmaking discourse which always sought to interpose some aspect of creative control over its funded projects. For Sembène there was no such option as he demanded either complete power over all aspects of the production process or none at all.

2.

Again, it is much too easy to attribute all of Diouna’s inhumane treatment to the social mapping of her occupation alone or, for that matter, to even view her as a proper member of working class French. Perhaps it could even be the case that Sembène initially wants us to believe the fantasy, if only for a very brief moment and with the utmost irony. For one does find in the beginning of the film something inexpressibly more sinister about the shots of the ocean liner and Diouna’s submissive courtesy at Monsieur’s banal questions when viewing the film for a second time.

It is not the fact that Monsieur initially treats Diouna badly that is repulsive. Rather it is very much the opposite: Monsieur actually attempts to treats Diouna in an almost understanding way, and it is through his failures that his supreme hypocrisy can be witnessed. In projecting the pretense of humane treatment, Monsieur rewrites the story of La Noire de… with himself as the tragic hero: the kind man who desperate tried to save the troubled girl from herself. It is as Oscar Wilde wrote: “the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it.” In other words, the only true kindness of a slave-owner would be, of course, to renounce his own position as a slave-owner. Similarly, it is Monsieur’s tactic of pseudo-sympathetically inquiring whether or not Diouna was “ill” along with his ultimate solution of throwing her money as a cure which forms the climactic moment where Monsieur’s true malevolence is finally shown to be what it is. If he does care about Diouna, it is only as a repairman cares about a broken machine. Monsieur’s hypocrisy is precisely in pretending that he understands more of Diouna than he does. He has no right to console her as if she is human when he neither treats her or considers her human.

Diouna is no worker; she is a slave, and her sleek, white ocean liner is her slave ship. Throughout the film, Diouna exists in a kind of social netherworld, a world in which she is simultaneously present and non-represented. Madame’s manipulations of Diouna’s occupational demands—first claiming Diouna as a nanny and later as a full housemaid—place Diouna in an impossible Catch-22. Diouna is essentially forced to do whatever her French employers demand but finds herself entirely helpless within France, since she has no protective authority and cannot even contact her mother without passing her thoughts through her employers’ textual screen.

3.

Immediately, one grasps Sembène’s staging of the mask motif and its parallel lives as metonymous for the internal dichotomies of Senegal itself. Tradition, Sembène says, is less important than its presentation: its particular social use. And, as the film shows us, an artifact can find its employment in liberation In this way, Diouna herself can be seen as both the greatest victim of neocolonialism and neocolonialism’s most ineradicable resource.

Now, of course it would be the case that neocolonialism should find its assets through some form of victimization—this is the entire logic of colonization in the first place—but Sembène clearly recognizes that there is much more at work here than can be explain by merely casting the Europeans as the ultimate villains. In fact, it is almost demeaning to assume that a post-colonial Senegal could be so utterly incapable of any autonomous existence as to appear to seamlessly continue colonial rule by their bidding alone. Rather, Sembène is critiquing what he understand to be the fault of the Senegalese themselves.

This fault can be exactly symbolized by Diouna’s purchase of the small boy’s mask for the sole purpose of impressing her European employers. It is precisely at this point that the mask begins its double duty as a Marxian character mask. The same movement holds for the black diplomat and policeman in Sembène’s Borom Sarret and how easily they were able to conform to the very same roles, effectively redressing themselves as their former oppressors. These are the native Senegalese who, despite their newfound opportunity to make a life free from Europe, inexplicably gravitate towards it with an unsettling passion. Do not forget that it was Diouna who first trod on the independence memorial; in essence, trodding on her very own independence.

If this is true, then the small boy is none other than a young, newly-independent Senegal just trying to make its way in the world; just toying with the idea of revitalizing a  lost tradition only to find this tradition commoditized and resold back to those from whom it has just achieved independence.

The tragic tale that Sembène tells is how these Europeanized blacks, who seek to make a name for themselves with their prior oppressors, are themselves oppressed as if they were no different than if they did not adopt European customs. Indeed, this speaks to both the great evil of colonization and the great shame of these blacks who continue the oppression of their own people. In a sense, Monsieur  may have been right in phrasing Diouna’s condition as an “illness”, for Europeanized blacks are, according to Sembène, neocolonialism’s greatest symptom. And like Diouna, they always realize their mistake too late at which point the form of their rebellion takes on a necessarily violent form. Where the small boy need only to dawn the already-present pride of his people to drive out the invaders, Diouna realized that she was the one who needed to leave. Where the small boy only needed to follow the invader—scaring him away solely with a rarefied image of his people—Diouna had to resort to violence. If Frantz Fanon was right about violence being an act of rebirth, then we can clearly the necessity of Diouna’s action, and whether it was out of shame of return or an attempt to protest the forces that subjugated her ultimately does not matter.

Sembène ends his film with an image of a triumphant Senegal, but we cannot ignore the tears in the boy’s eyes as he removes the mask.

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One Response to La Noire de…

  1. Mao Suzuki says:

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