Masked Resistance: Exploring The Symbolism in Ousmane Sembène's La Noire De

29 April 2024

LUMI Programmer Molly Qualter investigates the symbolism in our latest LUMI Presents film, Black Girl.

Sembenes La Noire De

Ousmane Sembène is often considered the ‘Father of African Cinema’ and his groundbreaking film, La Noire De... or Black Girl (1966), highlights this. Every frame is laden with symbolism and meaning. Among the many motifs employed by Sembène, one stands out as particularly poignant: the ceremonial mask.

Throughout La Noire De..., Sembène strategically uses masks to convey the complexities of post-colonial African identity. The mask represents more than just a piece of traditional art; it embodies the struggle for autonomy and cultural preservation in the face of colonial domination. The mask is first revealed when Diouana finds employment, she takes the ceremonial mask from a young boy, through hectic hand held camera work, we follow as she holds the mask to her face singing ‘I’ve got work, I’ve got work’; Her next line foreshadows Diouana’s forced removal of her Senegalese identity, as she sings ‘I’ve got work with the white folks’. She eventually purchases the mask and gifts it to the French family.

The mask motif is a replicant of the ideology that true independence cannot be achieved under colonialist power. The mask undergoes a transformation throughout the film, mirroring Diouana's own journey of resistance. From a cherished artefact of African heritage to a mere decoration in the hands of her employers, the mask's fate reflects the devaluation of African culture under colonial rule. Its presence in the French employers home serves as a constant reminder of the ongoing struggle for independence and self-determination in Senegal.

To understand the turning point of La Noire de... it is crucial to note what Diouana represents. She is a direct representation of Africa and its cultural imperatives. Uniquely within the context of African narratives Diouana faces forms of oppression and is not shown as a victim but as a victor in the struggle for African identity. This is highlighted in the final act of Diouana’s defiance. She establishes her refusal of entrapment in slavery in the films final act by metaphorically seizing a form of independence she is successful in regaining control of the mask. Now Diouana is in full control of her own destiny, this seeming act of self-destruction revolutionises as an act of self-actualisation. The final shot of the film ends with the same boy seen before, reclaiming his mask. As he slowly lowers it to reveal his face, Sembène creates a symbol of hope for Senegal, for as he says there cannot be independence without true revolution.