A thin woman with sunflower earrings is waiting for her taxi. It is 1966. She has just stepped off of a passenger ship and onto a crammed dock. “Will someone be waiting for me?” she asks. The woman with sunflower earrings is perfectly serene. Her chin steady, she wears a look of almost perfect expectation. This is the opening scene of Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl, the first film in the six-part series at the Schlesinger Library, part of Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. A screening of the film took place Oct. 6 at the library.
Perched in the front row of the theater, Katie Kohn also wore an expression of expectation. A doctoral candidate in film and visual studies, Kohn is this year’s curator of the Schlesinger Library film series. From French New Wave cinema (Black Girl, 1966) to biting modern satire (Zero Motivation, 2014), the films in the series are united under the common umbrella of “Girlhood,” which is both title and theme of the series.
One of the first images Kohn presented on opening night was the face of a defiant-eyed boy. In other words, she opened her talk about girls with a discussion of boys. Why, Kohn asked, are there so many films about boys becoming men and so few about girls becoming women? Kohn brought up numerous examples of the phenomena – for instance Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Kohn posted that there is a strong concept of “boy:” that, no matter what, he will always become a man.
The same developmental concept for girls is at the heart of Kohn’s project, and her choice of Black Girl was a launching point. Black Girl, or La Noir de…, is a harrowingly beautiful portrait of the effects of psychological enclosure. Diouana, the “girl” of the title, is lured to France to be a nanny, but lands into a position of complete servitude. Far away from friends, family and freedom, Diouana chooses to cut out of the situation rather than compromise her integrity. It is not a happy movie, and the sunflower-eared woman of the opening scene is broken down to a shell of her former self.
In a post-screening discussion, Kohn explained her choice of the film. She told a shell-shocked audience that it is one of the most prominent French New Wave pieces to feature a post-colonial perspective. Sembene, the film’s director, is widely considered to be the father of African cinema, and his piece provides commentary not only on sexism, but classism and racism as well.
In the course of her talk, Kohn shared the Google yield for a search on the words “girl power.” Superwoman, the Powerpuff Girls, Rosie the Riveter – all conspicuously white – were samples from the analytics. Kohn’s point: Not all girls are granted the chance to be women with agency. But it’s clear from Black Girl that not all girls are even granted the right to their own girlhood.
Kohn wants us to reconsider – through film and discussion – what it means to be a girl.