'Black Girl' and the Ambiguous Nature of the Mask

Mbissine Thérèse Diop as Diouana

Black Girl suggests that in its act of concealment the mask offers the revelation of the abyss that we truly are.

Black Girl

Director: Ousmane Sembène
Cast: M’Bissine Thérèse Diop, Anne-Marie Jelinek
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Year: 1966
US Release Date: 2017-01-24
“Masks. -- There are women who, however you may search them, prove to have no content but are purely masks. The man who associates with such almost spectral, necessarily unsatisfied beings is to be commiserated with, yet it is precisely they who are able to arouse the desire of the man most strongly: He seeks for her soul -- and goes on seeking.”

-- Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, translated by R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), 152.

Setting aside the casual misogyny inherent in Nietzsche’s aphorism, it proves to be a penetrating insight into the human condition. Perhaps the inevitability of the mask is buttressed by the etymology of the word “person”, which derives from the Latin persona. Per-sona, literally “that through which the sound comes”, referred to the mask that an actor wore in ancient theater. The mask served to imbue the actor with the character being depicted, to allow the actor to disappear behind it, to lose his former identity and become the character.

But at the same time the actor speaks through the mask and thus through the character. In a sense, to be a part of the play requires the medium of the mask. To simply drop the mask (in a kind of Brechtian moment of alienation) is to remove yourself from an important aspect of the play. This seems to apply to quotidian life as well. There are plenty of behaviors I exhibit as a son that do not coincide with my behaviors as a teacher or as a friend or as a colleague. If we think of these social roles as masks of a sort (in line with say, Carl Jung), then most of us speak through our personae most of the time, if not exclusively.

But Nietzsche, of course, goes farther. Behind or beyond these masks we (granted, Nietzsche only claims this applies to some, but I think it is far more generalized) have no content. This seems to anticipate Sartre’s dictum “existence precedes essence”, a reversal of the typical metaphysical view. For Sartre, as human beings, we develop our essence after we are born, unlike the remainder of things in the world which enter existence with an essence established. What he means is that we are at least partially able to determine our own nature, to create our own values, and to designate our own sense of meaning in the world.

Not only are we able to do so, Sartre suggests, but we are forced to do so. Sure, we can try to find security in an established social role by embodying that role (say, the role of teacher or son) without going beyond its limits, but that is an act of bad faith and an abandonment of our ontological freedom -- the existentialist version of “even a decision not to make a decision is a decision”.

Traditional African cultures promote a different (although not entirely unrelated) philosophy of the mask. Masks are used in ceremonies to connect with the spirits of the ancestors and to come to grips with the forces of good and evil that undergird nature and that effect the community. The wearer of the mask putatively loses his or her own identity to become one with the spirit of the mask.

Notice the underlying similarities and subtle but striking reversals involved in a comparison between the western view of the mask and the traditional African view. In both cases, the mask connects one to larger social and historical forces. In the case of Sartre, the mask worn through bad faith may, in a deeper ontological sense, be disingenuous but in a more immediate lived sense, it connects us to the social roles that facilitate society’s operations. In an ironic manner that Sartre does not adequately explore, the mask is good for society even if it is bad for the individual (to put it in rather egregiously simplistic terms). Society benefits through the effacement of the individual.

Much of this applies, although with the terms of valuation reversed, to the traditional African conception of the mask. The individual loses his or her identity in wearing the mask precisely in order to facilitate the health of the social whole. But there's an even more striking reversal at work here. As we saw in the etymology of the word, the individual in the west speaks through the mask but in the African tradition, the spirit of the mask speaks through the individual.

If in western philosophy the mask is inescapable, it's also a pejorative influence on our ontological health and freedom. To wear the mask is to hide; it's an act of bad faith, an attempt to disavow the underlying reality of our identity and abandon our birthright to create meaning. In the African tradition, to don the mask has deeply beneficial effects not only for the individual but also for the society at large. To wear the mask is not to hide but rather to open oneself out onto eternity, to history and its ever-present influence on contemporary life, to the deep traditional ties that make life meaningful. Wearing the mask does not disavow the underlying reality but rather it exposes that reality, making it pliable to human need and desire.

The mask plays a central role in the first feature-length film by the director many historians consider the father of African cinema: the poet, novelist, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. The film, Black Girl (1966), is widely considered to be the first film by a Sub-Saharan director to gain international acclaim (it won the Prix Jean Vigo for best film the year of its release and was shown throughout the world).

Black Girl opens with a beautifully dressed young African woman named Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) disembarking from a trip from Dakar upon her arrival in France. At first, she is unsure if anyone is there to meet her. We soon learn that she has come to serve as the nanny for a family that had been living in her hometown of Dakar, Senegal, and had now moved back to Antibes. When she first arrives at the family’s home, we see the mask for the first time, conspicuously hanging on the wall near the entrance. Sembène’s artful use of high-contrast black and white film emphasizes the isolation of the carefully etched wooden visage on the blank, blanched canvas of the wall. The mask is the only point of interest in a vast sea of whiteness. At first, it seems out of place, a bit of touristic exoticism. It's one of the first things that Diouana seems to notice about the room.

We later learn in a flashback that it was Diouana herself who had bought this mask from her younger brother to give to the couple back in Dakar in thanks for offering her the position. The couple enthuses over the item once Diouana has left their presence, remarking in particular on its authenticity in comparison with the other African trinkets they had assembled. The mask then switches its valuation within the film. At first, it appeared to be a mere marker of the remainder of a colonial attitude within the couple’s view of Diouana (Senegal had only recently, in 1960, been liberated from more than 100 years of French control).

Now we see it also as an offering on behalf of Diouana, an offering that represents a tie to her family (her brother in particular) and in a larger sense to her communal identity. She had come to France seeking a new life; the mask functioned as a sort of sacrificial offering of her past identity, her former self. This realization not only makes us reevaluate that look she gave the mask upon her arrival (what had looked to my eyes like suspicion now seems to have been recognition, perhaps satisfaction) but it also clarifies a certain existential emptiness at the heart of Diouana.

We might take this to mean that she has abandoned precipitously her communal African identity in pursuit of the commercial individuality of the European (she repeatedly refers longingly to the allure of the French shops). Or we might recognize that her sense of “thrownness” here (to borrow a Heideggerian term that features strongly in Sartre’s existentialism), her finding herself in a situation where she is unmoored and without a secure identity, is the ontological condition we all share at these pivotal moments in our lives.

The situation quickly sours. The family, it turns out, expects Diouana to serve not simply as a nanny but as a maid, a cook, and a laundress. Diouana feels these duties are beneath her dignity and more to the point that she was misled into a form of de facto slavery. She has elected her own abandonment to a situation where she has little control, no recourse, no support system.

The remarkable aspect of this film, however, is its ability to keep us within the mind-space of Diouana, to not allow us to objectify her in the manner in which she is being objectified. She is the only major character with a name (her employers are simply referred to as “Madame” and “Monsieur”), we hear her thoughts, follow her actions. To borrow again from Nietzsche, it is her soul we seek and continue to seek throughout the film. And indeed she does appear to be ephemeral and dissatisfied. She haunts the places she occupies, driven on by unconsummated desires.

In what I regard as the central scene of the film (and the first of its two most affecting moments -- the other also involves the mask but discussing it would divulge the ending of the film), Diouana is alone in the apartment, imagining that her family and friends in Senegal must believe she is very happy in France. She faces the mask, still alone on a blank wall. She places her hands on that wall, on either side of that face, that marker of her lost authenticity, her lost sense of belonging, her fading identity. Then she turns her head, looking back toward the camera, creating a deeply melancholic tableau of misery, confusion, and isolation.

This tableau reveals the aching ambiguity of the original French title: La Noire de …, “the black girl of…”, which might imply the black girl belonging to someone (the French household) or the black girl from a given place. Here Diouana finds herself trapped in that ambivalence. She is the black girl who "belongs" to an indifferent family and moreover, she is a black girl of ambiguous provenance. Is she still the Diouana from Dakar or has she lost that position to become the family’s black girl in France, a social role and an unpleasant one at that?

In its act of concealment, the mask offers the revelation of the abyss that we truly are. What is it that the mask whispers to Diouana in that moment? Are they words of consolation, reminding her that she still belongs -- perhaps not here but somewhere? That there are still traditions that vouchsafe meaning? Or does it utter the cruel reminder that she chose this life, that she severed the ties to her past and her family and that she was the cause of her own abandonment into the void of drudgery and loneliness? Does it convey to her the awful truth that we are all the authors of our own misery?

* * *

Criterion Collection has recently released a beautifully restored version of Black Girl in celebration of its 50th anniversary. In its typical style, Criterion provides several wonderful extras including interviews with M’Bissine Thérèse Diop and two film scholars specializing in Sembène, a clip of an interview with Sembène from 1966, a 1994 documentary on the filmmaker, and a restored version of Sembène's first short film, Borom sarret.

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