Mbissine Thérèse Diop in Black Girl.
Courtesy Criterion Collection

For better or worse, we live in a world where a nearly 60-year-old movie can be a revelation. Senegalese filmmaker and novelist Ousmane Sembène’s debut film Black Girl is already loved by many, but it deserves to find an even wider audience. Mbissine Thérèse Diop gives a harrowing, quietly fiery performance as Diouana, a woman who’s brought from Dakar to the South of France to work for a young family; though the ostensible head of the household (Robert Fontaine) treats her with moderate indifference, it’s his icy wife Madame (Ann-Marie Jelinek) who makes the rules, and she berates Diouana constantly. Diouana has been brought to France to care for the couple’s children, but instead she’s expected to cook and clean. Her employers’ male dinner guests kiss her and paw at her as if she were theirs for the taking. Though Diouana has dreamed of being able to walk in the sun—and shop for fine clothes—in this new-to-her country, she’s kept inside day and night, which drives her into a deep depression and toward madness. This graceful, desolate picture, inspired by a true story, haunts beyond the final frame.

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