Ousmane Sembčne makes his debut into the Criterion Collection, the label releasing his debut feature, Black Girl, on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration undertaken by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
This really is a stunning restoration and presentation. The restoration work itself has left very little in the way of marks or damage behind, the only stand outs being the occasional stray hair in the film gate or a few dark blotches in the frame about 12-minutes’ in. Otherwise the film looks near-pristine and I’m in awe at the work that has gone into it.
The digital presentation itself is just about flawless as well. The level of detail delivered is extraordinary, every frame looking crisp and clean. Fine object details pop in both close-ups and long shots, textures look sharp and life-like, and film grain is splendidly rendered, looking clean and natural. Contrast levels also look to be on mark, with rich black levels and nicely balanced whites that don’t bloom, and fine tonal shifts in the gray levels. All of this together provides a real stunner of a presentation: it’s clean, sharp, and very film-like. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion also packs on quite a bit of supplementary material, which all work together to offer an excellent primer on the film’s director, Ousmane Sembčne, and a solid history on African cinema. On Ousmane Sembčne features a new 20-minute interview with professor of French, Samba Gadjigo, who first gives a brief history of African cinema, which was heavily controlled by the French through the early 20th century, the French (not surprisingly) being concerned about “subversive” films being made. Things changed in the 60s and Gadjigo explains how and why Sembčne, a novelist beforehand, made the move to film, his first shorts and features bringing attention from the West to African cinema. Though a talking-head feature Gadjigo packs it with great information, offering an excellent starting point for those not only interested in Sembčne but African cinema as a whole.
Somewhat surprisingly Criterion is also able to get a great 12-minute interview with the film’s star, M’bissine Thérčse Diop. This one has a few surprises, like how Diop, who wasn’t an actor at the time, did the film as a bit of lark, thinking it would be fun to be a film. She recounts stories, what it was like working with Sembčne, who she admits could be difficult, and her fears of the possible reactions from others to her being in the film, particularly from her father. It’s a fun, personal interview.
Manthia Diaward next offers an invaluable contribution to this release, talking about Black Girl’s subject matter, point of view, and its importance in the history of African cinema. The story was inspired by a headline Sembčne came across while on a Parisian beach (and the same type of scene plays out in the film) and he wrote a story around it before eventually making the film version. Diaward covers Sembčne’s desire to reach as a big an audience as possible in the hopes offering an African point of view to counterpoint the African stereotypes presented in films by the primarily white, western filmmakers, even the “well meaning” ones. He also offers some nice context to the film, which should aid those unfamiliar with certain traditions represented in the film.
Similar to the BFI edition Criterion also includes a color sequence that was originally shot for the film, though unlike the BFI they don’t offer it as an option to watch within the film itself via seamless branching; it’s only available on its own. The scene is an alternate presentation of the drive through the Parisian countryside after Diouana first arrives in France. Sembčne filmed it and then abandoned it, which is why I assume Criterion presents it completely separate from the film, though still bookends it with the scenes from the finished film that would have preceded and followed it. I’m not sure why he abandoned it, but I couldn’t shake that it had a bit of a Wizard of Oz kind of feel (Diouana arriving in this “magical, amazing” world) that doesn’t gel with the rest of the film. Still, it’s a great inclusion and it’s been beautifully restored like the main feature, which was a really welcome surprise. It runs about a minute.
Criterion digs up a 2-minute archival interview with Sembčne from a French television program called JT de 20h, which he did after his Prix Jean Vigo win for Black Girl. He talks quickly about the surprise of winning before explaining why he made the film.
One of the best supplements on here, though, is the inclusion of Sembčne’s debut short film, Borrom Sarret. The brisk, 20-minute feature focuses on the day-in-the-life of a wagon driver as he picks up fares (most of whom don’t pay) through the poor areas outside of the city and dealing with the various “classes” I guess found in these areas. It feels to be made by a seasoned pro and its satirical points on the class divide (sparing no criticisms from anyone, even those on the lowliest rungs of the social ladder) are pretty eye-opening. Manthia Diaward also offers a 12-minute analysis for the film, providing more context to the film and the time period depicted. He even shares personal stories about growing up under French colonization, explaining the further divides between people from the cities and the surrounding villages, also nicely represented in the film.
The short film also comes from a new 4K restoration, and it looks just a stunning as the main feature: very sharp, very filmic, and very little print damage remaining.
Another great inclusion (and also found on the BFI edition) is the 60-minute 1994 documentary (directed by Manthia Diawara and Ng?g? Wa Thiong’o) Sembčne: The Making of African Cinema. I was expecting a pretty standard documentary about Sembčne’s career, and though it certainly does fill that void, looking at his career from his writing up to the film Guelwaar, it ends up being substantially more than that. The filmmakers follow Sembčne at the Pan African Film Festival where he gets into discussions with other festival participants—including director John Singleton—and then catch him talking to students about filmmaking, covering topics from script writing to framing. There are also general first-person interviews where he covers a variety of other subjects, sharing his thoughts on African cinema at the time, talking about Chaplin, and stressing the importance of knowing film history when one is a filmmaker. But, in the more intense and brutally honest moments, Sembčne talks openly about the terrible effects of colonialism on the continent, not holding back his feelings. It’s a wonderful documentary, far more in-depth and personal than I had figured it would be going into it. One of the stronger features on here.
The disc then closes with the Janus re-release trailer and the included insert features an essay by Ashley Clark, who goes over how colonialism shaped Sembčne and his work, while also offering more details about Black Girl’s production and how it got funding, a subject not covered as well in the on-disc interviews.
Altogether the features offer a very satisfying, comprehensive overview of the films on this release and Sembčne’s work, along with a wonderful introduction for newcomers to African cinema. A wonderful job on Criterion’s part. 9/10