Sembene! and Black Girl: Viewing the "Father" of African Filmmaking

A doc and a feature introduce the films of Ousmane Sembène

You have to admire any filmmaker whose movies have been banned in his home country. And when that person is Ousmane Sembène, who is widely regarded as “the father of African cinema,” the admiration of this Senegalese artist extends to an entire continent, as well as international film fans.

Black Girl

Ousmane Sembène’s films assault the perfidious legacies of political and religious colonialism, in addition to the damaging domestic traditions of animism and female genital cutting. His 10 completed films and numerous novels speak to people on every continent who are familiar with the experience of physical and cognitive subjugation. Following his death in 2007, his award-winning films and philosophy of indigenous moviemaking have left a legacy with which every well-versed cinephile should be familiar. Six years ago, the Austin Film Society presented an Essential Cinema retrospective of his work. Although not nearly as comprehensive, a wonderful introduction to Sembène’s legacy will be on display Sunday afternoon at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz when the theatre presents a double bill of the documentary Sembene! and the director’s first, and probably still most widely seen feature, Black Girl.


Sembène was a soldier and a dockworker, who became a self-taught writer and filmmaker following a back injury during which he lay on his stomach for six months while healing. His 1966 film Black Girl is based on his own novel, and his debut work received awards at Cannes and numerous other film festivals, and also became the first film made by a sub-Saharan director to be seen beyond the African continent. Black Girl set the tone for the rest of Sembène's work and provides a vivid example of the insidious ways in which colonialism seizes not only a country’s land and political systems but the minds of the populace as well. Black Girl’s deceptively simple story about a Senegalese maid who is hired to work for her white French employers on the distant Riveria shows the self-destructive, internalized contortions of the colonized mind. As the maid's dislocation and isolation grow, so does her sense of desperation. The film's original French title, La Noire de …, conveys an even stronger sense of the woman's ambiguous identity. New prints have been struck of the hourlong black-and-white film.

Ousmane Sembène and Samba Gadjigo

Showing before Black Girl is the documentary Sembene! by co-writers, -directors, and -producers Jason Silverman and Samba Gadjigo, who is Sembène's official biographer. The film offers a useful and entertaining overview of Sembène’s life and career, which is enhanced by Gadjigo’s intimate knowledge of the Senegalese master. Using historical footage and photographs, personal accounts, and delightful animated sequences that introduce each biographical section, Sembene! creates an engaging portrait. Impressively, the film doesn’t kowtow to the “great man” foibles of historical documentation, and includes some unflattering material about the filmmaker that I wasn’t aware of before watching this doc. Sembène! stands as an important contribution to our understanding of one of cinema’s most important but frequently overlooked filmmakers.

Sembene! and Black Girl screen Sunday, Feb. 12, 3:30pm at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz.

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Ousmane Sembene, Black Girl, Sembene!, Jason Silverman, Samba Gadjigo

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