Ousmane Sembène’s films were a part of the Third Cinema movement, a succession of films which critiqued neocolonialism and capitalism. Throughout his career, Sembène produced various works that gave an overview of the Africa and the diaspora. However, there are very few films among his contemporaries that match his masterpiece, La Noire de… (Black Girl) in its depiction of black womanhood and French colonialism. Though it has been 50 years since its release, La Noire de… presents timeless critiques of systems of domination. The story of Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) offers a look at how black women have been affected by neo-colonialism and gendered difference. Writers like Frantz Fanon are often referenced for their critique of colonialism but their analysis stops short of the effects of colonialism on black women.
The viewer sees Diouana as she gives an account on her deteriorating relationship with her employers and her longing for home. In one of the more poignant points of the film, Diouana reflects on her ‘France’, the domestic sphere which has become new reality. Deceived by imaginings of a cosmopolitan life, Diouana is trapped by the family she works for. Our gaze is of the screen and hers, on her dreams slowly fading into oblivion. Sembane is direct in his critique of French colonialism and its depiction of gender, with a stark contrast drawn between the wife and Diouana. It is rare to find a film during this time period which indicts white women as propagators of neo-colonialist narratives and Sembene positions white womanhood as a direct threat to Diouana’s ability to self-actualize. The invisible Diouana is rendered visible by the viewer in an otherwise impossible situation.
The advent of motion pictures shifted how society documented and interpreted history. Often times, it navigated the lines of racialized identity; bound by notions of domination and structural power. In Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks observes the oppositional gaze found in one’s experience with the visual. In the ability to “look back”, the viewer can engage in critiquing the distorted images of blackness, affording an amount of agency. One of the first portrayals of a black woman on film appears in The Morning Bath. Shot using Edison’s Kinetoscope in 1896, the short depicts a mother bathing her young child. It is an unassuming subject; performing a seemingly ritual act. However, its complexity and beauty lies in the black woman herself as a subject. She flashes several smiles, often towards an unknown participant in the background. But the focus on her and her child is important as black women in pre-Technicolor cinema often not allotted the capacity to exist within their own bounds. In the United States, narratives involving Black characters were often performed by White actors in Blackface before shifting to hiring black actors to appear in films alongside white actors. hooks continues in her reflection of blackness in film as the presence of black women serves as an absence. This absence, embodied by erasure through the use of racialized stereotypes. Black directors and writers resisted these stereotypes by producing films of their own.
Featuring an all-black cast and crew, “race cinema” became a dominant form of expression for black actors, writers and directors. In 1929, Hallelujah became the first film produced with an all-black cast. Despite its efforts, the film fell short in its representation of black women, casting one of its stars, Nina Mae McKinney, in a type of role that reflected the presumed untrustworthiness of black women in larger, mainstream productions. Like many other black actresses of her time, the lack of opportunity in Hollywood would lead McKinney to leave the United States and continue her career in black British films. The earliest years of cinema saw black and other women of color sparingly through its lenses. Actresses such as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge provided an alternative image in an industry that recognized whiteness as the standard.
Today, black women continue to create spaces in front of and behind the camera. They stare into the medium once used to peer into our lives and present false narratives about black womanhood. Lazy, angry, exotic; the depictions of black women on the screen were narrow, and arguable continue to be, in view. With “staring black”, black women directors and audiences are processing and constructing representations of black womanhood that exist beyond the black and white binary.
Among the lives of black women across the diaspora, one will find nuances in histories and cultures. What we share is the capacity to tell our own stories, many of which have been documented but are less recognized. The following list highlights 5 must see depictions of black women and girls in black and white.
1.) The Duke Is Tops (1938)
2.) Son of Ingagi (1940)
3.) The Blood of Jesus (1941)
4.) Bright Road (1953)
5.) Jemima and Johnny (1966)