Black Girl: A Pathbreaking Film



BLACK GIRL (1966; restored 2016)

Directed by Ousmane Sembène

New Yorker Video, 55 minutes, Not-rated

In French with subtitles





Black Girl is considered a pioneering work in African cinema. This film by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène probes the impact of colonialism in just 55 minutes, yet still manages to show how it damaged Africans and Europeans alike.


The film’s namesake is idealistic Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), who meets a French husband and wife on temporary assignment in rural Senegal. She is hired by the couple, known only as Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) and Madam (Anne-Marie Jelinek). When the couple return to their home on the Côte d’Azur, they offer to pay for Diouana to come to France and continue her employment. It seems a dream come true for Diouana and she arrives with visions of acquiring sophistication and cultural enrichment. She is so excited that she buys a carved mask at the marketplace in her village that she gifts to the couple.


Euphoria gives way to a metaphorical slap in the face. The friendliness she experienced in Senegal gives way to haughtiness and a master-servant arrangement. Diouana has no grasp on European racial dynamics. In Senegal she was treated with respect but in France she is viewed as little more than a trained and caged curiosity. Madame is especially barbed in her commands. Diouana is expected to clean, cook, and take care of the couple’s children and she’s so unprepared for her situation that she wears heels and a tribal dress as she toils around the clock.


In one horrifying moment, Diouana is supposed to cook an unspecified African dish for a dinner party at which a male guest embraces her because he wants to know what it’s like to “kiss a black girl.” Diouana is a prisoner in all but name inside the couple’s home, though she does manage to acquire a black boyfriend whose motives are unclear. To say that things do not get better understates how bad things are. At one point Diouana goes on a one-woman strike, though Madam insists that if Diouana refuses to work, she will not be fed. Queue two unfortunate endings, one tragic and the other dangerous and ironic.


Despite its age, Black Girl is such a fine film that Sembène is often considered the first African director to attract international acclaim. It should also be noted that it was a timely production. In 1966, Senegal had only been independent for six years, after three and a half centuries of colonial rule, mostly by France, which used it as a center for its foray into the slave trade. It has been a slow and difficult transition. Even today 70 percent of the population lives in poverty, life expectancy is 68 years, and 44 percent of the population is illiterate. It was much worse in 1960, when life expectancy was under 38 and the illiteracy rate was 66 percent.


In the 21st century, Senegal’s legacy of colonialism has fostered resentment toward former masters. We can see the seeds of this in Black Girl. Again, though, part of the brilliance of Sembène’s film is that he shows how erstwhile masters inflicted damage upon themselves as well. We get a palpable sense of how the racist past entrapped Monsieur and Madam, so much so that we draw the conclusion that they left their better selves in Africa. The film’s coda-like second ending powerfully drives home the blindness of Western perspectives.


This is a must-see for film buffs. Even if you’re not one, watch Black Girl. It will make you understand what is meant when someone speaks of the cancerous effects of colonialism. Never assume that the past quietly retires to the south of France and simply fades away.


Rob Weir  




School for Scoundrels Dated and Not PC, but Holds Lessons




Directed by Robert Hamer and Hal E. Chester

Warner-Pathé, 97 minutes, Unrated (sexism)





If you need a break from political correctness battles, try the 1960 version of School for Scoundrels. It was made before anyone imagined such a term. It’s of middling quality, but it is certainly miles better than the 2006 Todd Phillips box office turkey that posed as an adaptation.


Social norms have changed a lot in the past 60 plus years, but most people can still relate to the plight of its main character, Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael). His family owns the London business he heads, but Henry is a dorky milquetoast who gets little respect from the staff or anyone else. That includes Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas). Call it the toothy (Palfrey) versus the gap-toothed (Delauney). Henry doesn’t like Raymond very much, but the latter delights in hanging around with Henry because he's better at just about everything than his sad-sack acquaintance: tennis, smart dress, choice of cars, conversation, love…. When Henry manages to get a dinner date with the attractive April Smith (Janette Scott), Raymond steals his date from under his plate.  


Such failings are why Henry travels to Yeovil in Somerset to attend the School of Lifemanship. It’s really the film’s namesake, which theater fans might recognize as a riff on a famous comedy of manners penned by Sheridan in the 18th century. The title is also commentary on a 1947 tongue-in-cheek book by Stephen Potter titled The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, which is why the film’s School of Lifemanship is headed by Dr. Potter (Alastair Sim). The gist is that students are schooled in the art of getting over on others via sleazy but not illegal ways. Tactics include making your opponent overthink situations, diverting his attention span, and suckering him into making intentional mistakes. In other words, be annoying but always one step ahead.


Henry learns his lessons well, perhaps too well. That is, under the guise of being outwardly a nice guy, Henry becomes a cad. Watch as Henry is first tricked into buying a belching, temperamental jalopy that only Rube Goldberg could love but uses Potter’s training to parlay it into advantage Palfrey. He becomes so supremely self-confident that he’s able to wreck Raymond’s tennis game, outwit Potter, and win April. In the film’s least PC moment, though one in keeping with the era’s paternalism, he deliberately spills a drink down April’s dress to get her out of her clothing and into his dressing gown. In film logic, his affected thoughtfulness causes April to fall for Henry.


I’ve probably made this sound more salacious than it is. School for Scandal is a 1960 British movie and back then, inuendo was okay but graphic depictions were still dicey. (In 1960, by the way, it wasn’t yet the norm for all Brits to own an automobile.) The situations in School for Scoundrels fall into the category of broad comedy, some of which is corny by today’s standards and others evocative of outmoded values. Its gentle ending, though, is an indication that fouls aside, no harm is done and goodness prevails. As noted, the parts that continue to resonate are age-old struggles to build confidence and the way that nice people are prey for the unscrupulous. Terry-Thomas was born to play scoundrels and is at the top of his obnoxious game in this movie.


Those familiar with the British Ealing comedies that proliferated between 1947-57 will recognize the similarities between its projects and School for Scoundrels. The latter was not made at Ealing Studios and isn’t as sharp script wise. That could be because its first director, Robert Hamer, was fired during production because of his heavy drinking and the reins were handed over to Hal E. Chester and Cyril Frankel. Frankel didn’t even get a credit, so one assumes he wasn’t entirely happy with the final product.


Even it’s not up to Ealing’s format in films such as King Hearts and Coronets or The Ladykillers, School for Scandal has its moments. You should watch it if, for no other reason, you’ll recognize gamesmanship tricks that persist despite social “progress.” Forewarned is forearmed.


Rob Weir





Emily the Criminal Unjustly Overlooked




Directed by John Patton Ford

Roadside Attractions, 93 minutes, R (language, drugs, some violence)




Audience scores for Emily the Criminal were so tepid that it barely recouped its $2 million budget. (If you don’t know, a budget that low is like buying gasoline for 30 cents a gallon.) I have to think that it simply wasn’t marketed very well, because it has a recognizable lead (Aubrey Plaza) and critics liked it. More to the point, it’s a really good film. Maybe the problem is that it was packaged a crime thriller. I can see that, but it’s really more of social commentary than a thriller.


Emily Benetto (Plaza) is a young woman failing to make a go of her life in the Los Angeles gig economy. She’s smart and smart alecky, but she’s burdened by crippling student debt and once got into a spot of trouble. Life on the margins + dead-end jobs + a criminal record = unemployable insofar as securing a decent-paying job goes. As her frustration grows, so too does her snarkiness and pessimism. It doesn’t help that her job with a catering service–Gina Gershon plays her boss–doesn’t exactly expose her to La-La Land’s most-polite citizens. And it really doesn’t help when someone she knows pulls strings to get Emily an interview with a magazine, which turns out to be a long unpaid internship that might turn into a paid position if she excels against other interns. She finds that insulting, says so in no uncertain terms, and storms out. (Anyone out there share her view and mine that unpaid internships are a violation of unfair labor practices laws?)


The crime part of the movie comes when she finds her way to Youcef Haddad (Theo Rossi) on a tip that he’s looking for someone to be a “dummy shopper.” If you’re thinking she’s helping others, think again. Emily’s obvious intelligence grabs Youcef’s attention in a roomful of other recruits, many of whom are probably undocumented immigrants. The operation is really a credit card scam. “Shoppers” are issued cards Youcef and his cousin Kahlil (Jonathan Agridori) make themselves and bear names and numbers gathered via identity theft. The job is to use the cards to buy high-ticket items and bring them to a predetermined location where they are loaded onto a truck that will take them to be fenced. Illegal? Of course, but $200 a day sounds good to Emily. If the system is going to treat her like garbage, why not get back at the metaphorical haulers?


Dangerous? Shoppers are told never to visit the same place over a period of time. It also helps to be issued a taser and receive directions on how to use it. She will have to do exactly that when she’s jumped while dog sitting for her friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Youcef plays both a love interest (of sorts) and the good guy role that’s juxtaposed against Kahlil’s surly cold-heartedness.


I won’t pretend that Emily the Criminal is the most original film you’ll ever see. Based on the above, you might be able to sketch out most of the directions the script takes. For the record, it also channels the Lawrence Kasdan-directed Body Heat (1981) at one point and this film is certainly not in the same quality category at that one. Nonetheless, Plaza is letter-perfect as a young woman pushed to the edge. She enhances the role by also playing the part physically. She’s clearly an attractive young woman but Plaza plays Emily as rough around the edges, the sort who embodies the phrase “she cleans up well.” In other words, she strikes a balance between downtrodden grit and affected poise, and walks the line between anger and hope.


Emily the Criminal did well at the Sundance Festival, so think of this one as one of those so-called “small” independent films whose lack of traction was due more to falling through the cracks rather than its merits. It also helps to muse upon its ironic title. If the proverbial “system” gives no breaks, who is the criminal in the title? Give it a try and decide for yourself.


Rob Weir