Sembène’s “Black Girl” Is a Ghost Story

Few know the film—the first feature-length film by a West African director—was based on a real-life incident, a real tragedy lost in colonial archives.

For the first time since arriving in Antibes, France, Diouana—born in Senegal—adopts a West African hairstyle. Until this point, she mostly has worn a sleek hairpiece or white headscarf and has appeared in European clothing. Now, moments before her suicide, Diouana wraps herself in a simple white peignoir and twists her hair into braids. This marked change in appearance signals a burgeoning bodily defiance. What is a viewer witnessing, after all, but Diouana’s irreversible shift from docile housemaid to intractable Black body, unfolding in real time?

Refusing to tolerate the ongoing abuse and racism experienced at the hands of her employers—white French colonists living between Antibes and Dakar—Diouana grows increasingly recalcitrant. She and the “Madame” have just physically fought over an obvious symbol of identity and Africanness: a traditional mask Diouana gave to the French family as a gift when she was first hired in Dakar as a nanny and maid, a bonne à tout faire. In preparation for her suicide, she reclaims the mask for herself. Seething, she returns a fistful of crumpled bills to her employers and packs her bags, as if to underscore that her suicide will be a form of transmigration: she is going home.

Trembling with rage, Diouana enumerates the myriad abuses to which she has been subjected in France. “I shall never be a slave,” she vows. Moments later, we see her lifeless body darkening the water of the bathtub in which she has slit her throat. Her blood has made an indecipherable inky smear on the side of the tub. To inflect the title of David Diop’s recent novel, in black-and-white “all blood is black.”1

The scenes described constitute key moments in Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 film La Noire de … (Black Girl).2 The iconic black-and-white film typically is heralded as the first feature-length film by a West African director. Over half a century later, it continues to have terrific force. It also continues to inspire new artwork and inquiry—including a recent portrait study by Zimbabwe-born, Johannesburg-based graphic artist and activist Sindiso Nyoni titled La Noire De (2020).

Besides film scholars, however, few people know that Sembène’s film was based on a real-life incident. Few know that there is another woman shadowing the Diouana we see on screen and in visual artworks like Nyoni’s portrait. The “real” Diouana, so to speak, was Diouana Gomis (1927–58): a 31-year-old woman from Boutoupa in Ziguinchor, Senegal. Hired in Dakar as a maid and nanny for a white French family, she arrived in Antibes in April 1958 and died by suicide less than three months later. Until very recently, details of her life and death have remained buried in French police archives.3 This essay excavates some of her story.

In February of this year, I went looking for traces of the real Diouana in France and Senegal. I had written recently about Black Girl and was in the process of finishing a dissertation chapter based on Sembène’s film. I remained haunted by the woman at the center of it all.

In the National Library in Paris, I combed through issues of the regional daily newspaper Le Nice-Matin and stumbled on the original fait divers (which, in French, designates short, often sensational news items) from 1958 that had inspired Sembène. It is the same report Sembène shows briefly, and only partially, in a close-up shot toward the end of the film. This is no ordinary prop. Sembène is winking at us—nodding to the genesis of his film in a very material way.

In 1958, Sembène was living in Marseille and working as a docker in the Old Port. He—like the real-life Diouana Gomis—was one of many Africans who came to the south of France after World War II to work or study. He would have read about the grisly death of a Senegalese housemaid in Antibes, just a few hours’ drive away along the Riviera, on the eve of Senegalese independence (1960). Like Flaubert, who famously found inspiration for Emma Bovary’s suicide among French fait divers, Sembène transformed a sliver of news into a masterpiece.

The full newspaper report from the National Library contained enough details to go on. On the métro back to my apartment, I booked a train south for the next day and wrote a hasty email to the departmental archives in Nice and to the municipal archives in Antibes to reserve spots in their reading rooms. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, besides a ghost.

In Antibes, I found an almost indecipherable acte de décès for Diouana. In the corner, in pencil, someone had added notes: suicide, 31 years old, French nationality (at the time, Senegal was still a colony). The death certificate included the names of Diouana’s parents, both deceased. I wondered who was left to mourn her.

The real breakthrough came in Nice, in the regional archives. I knew most suicides left some official trace, so I started with police files, looking for records of a suicide in Antibes in 1958. After sifting through cases of murder, arson, suspected homosexuality (it was the ’50s, after all), and other suicides, and completing ample paperwork (I needed permission to view certain documents), I found Diouana’s case file: the procès-verbal or official report of her suicide on June 22, 1958, case number 1077.

It was like seeing an old photograph—both estranging and familiar. I felt as if I had already spent so much time with Sembène’s cinematic version of Diouana. In reality, this “screen memory” both exposed and eclipsed a very real, deeply human tragedy.4

Detail from the procès-verbal (Archives départementales des Alpes-Maritimes)


Though slim, the procès-verbal contained a trove of details, including statements from the investigating detective, Michel Teissier; Diouana’s employer, a certain Jeannine Petit née O’Kelly; and the next-door neighbor, Jean Giraud, a retired naval officer. I found, tucked into the pages of Diouana’s file, a small, handwritten note on official letterhead from the examining coroner, Docteur M. Herry. Likely cause of death: suicide.

Teissier, Petit, Giraud, and Dr. Herry all give their versions of a fateful Sunday afternoon in June at the Petit family’s home, Villa Le Bonheur Vert—a cheery name for a haunted house. The same grim scene is refracted and replayed: a maid found dead on the bathroom floor in a pool of blood, a kitchen knife nearby.

Although it does not appear on modern maps—and, like many old homes in Antibes, lacks a street number—I located the family villa on land registers from the 1950s and even uncovered a set of plans from when the house was first built, in 1934. I was surprised to find that it is still standing.

Situated between manicured hedges at the end of a narrow impasse in the La Salis neighborhood of Antibes, Le Bonheur Vert is bright and well maintained. The only signs of wear are on the gatepost, which bears the villa’s original name, carved into the cement. I wondered if the current owners had any clue as to what happened here. No one was home, so I scribbled my name and phone number on a scrap of paper and tucked it into their mailbox. I have not heard back.

Villa Le Bonheur Vert, Antibes (February 2021)

Months later, in Dakar, I sifted through dusty files in the National Archives and the archives of the School of Police and the Ministry of the Interior. I was hoping to find traces of Diouana’s life in Dakar before she embarked for Antibes—or perhaps evidence that her remains eventually were returned to extended family in Senegal. In the 1950s, she would have needed an identity card to travel outside of the A.O.F. (colonized French West Africa). I wondered if records of her application for such a document—a photograph, a thumbprint—miraculously might still exist. Such traces continue to evade me.

Diouana’s suicide proves her ultimate form of inscription, giving her a sudden flash of legibility in the colonial-imperial archive. Perhaps this evasion is a form of freedom.

Part of the enduring force of Sembène’s Black Girl comes from the way the film rescues Diouana Gomis’s death from its cold rendering in a French newspaper. Sembène’s film identifies and, to an extent, resolves what Marisa J. Fuentes has posed as a historiographical problem: namely, how to narrate “fleeting glimpses” of Black women within traditional archives.5 Sembène finds creative form for registering a tragedy that otherwise recedes from view.

Nyoni’s recent portrait study of Sembène’s Diouana—a digital street-art take on early posters for the film—accomplishes something similar. La Noire De was featured in this past year’s PRIZM Art Fair (December 1–21, 2020) and remains viewable in the fair’s virtual exhibition. PRIZM occurs annually during Art Basel and presents work by artists from Africa and the diaspora. Curated by Mikhaile Solomon and William Cordova, the eighth iteration’s theme was inspired by Sembène and appropriately titled, Noir, Noir: Meditations on African Cinema and Its Influence on Visual Art.

Nyoni’s piece is a chilling portrait study of two Diouanas. In the foreground, we see Mbissine Thérèse Diop (b. 1949), the Senegalese actress who plays Diouana in La Noire de…, as Diouana shortly before her suicide. The moment from the film is immediately recognizable from her bared decolletage, simple earring, and braids. Her gaze is intent and dully resigned. This is the moment she chooses death.

Sindiso Nyoni, La Noire De (2020)

On the left, behind this first Diouana, is Nyoni’s rendering of Sembène’s “African girl with a sunflower earring” shot, depicting Diop/Diouana as she first arrives in France by boat from Dakar. This is the very first image we see of Diouana in Black Girl, occurring just minutes into the film. (The same still was used for the widely available Criterion Collection edition.) Her eyes are askance, chin raised, mouth proud and shrewd. Evocative of Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait d’une femme noire (1800), the image is also a defiant take on Johannes Vermeer’s iconic composition, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). But instead of the Dutch girl’s parted lips and beckoning gaze, we are confronted with a stoic Diop, whose commanding stare expresses little regard for any real or imagined viewer.

[L to R] Criterion Collection’s Black Girl (2013), detail from Benoist’s Portrait d’une femme noire (1800), Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)

Perhaps the most visually striking feature of Nyoni’s treatment of Diop/Diouana is the way he presents a woman and her photographic negative: different versions of the same woman, shadowing each other. Nyoni’s juxtaposition masterfully picks up on Sembène’s frequent doubling and displacement of Diop/Diouana’s image in the film.

Stills from Sembène’s Black Girl (Criterion)

His doubled composition also gets at one of the uncannier elements of Diop’s performance in the film. That is, there is a noticeable disconnect between Diop’s body and the language ascribed to it in the voice-over, which floats above the action as Diouana narrates her experience. A little-known fact about Sembène’s film is that it was shot silently, then dubbed during postproduction in France. The Diouana we hear on screen is voiced by the Haitian singer Toto Bissainthe. The cinematic character of Diouana is a silent body (Diop) onto which another woman’s voice is grafted (Bissainthe).

In an interview earlier this year, Nyoni explained how he first encountered Sembène’s cinema as a student at the University of Johannesburg, where he often dipped into the Department of Multimedia’s film collections while finishing his BTech degree in graphic design. During the COVID-19-related lockdowns, Nyoni and his wife, Khule Mayisa—herself a filmmaker and photographer—returned to Sembène’s films while awaiting the birth of their son. It was during this period that Nyoni created the images of Diouana, working directly from film stills, using Procreate on iPad Pro.

Nyoni’s visual citation of Black Girl and PRIZM’s return to Sembène’s cinema are part of renewed popular and scholarly interest in early African filmmakers, which has seen a major uptick in the wake of Sembène’s death in June 2007, and especially with the appearance of the biopic Sembène! (2015). This interest has continued into 2021, with the restorations of Sembène’s satirical film Mandabi (The Money Order) (1968), which became available for screening in the new year, and the Tunisian director Férid Boughedir’s documentary Caméra d’Afrique (1983), which was screened as part of the 28th New York African Film Festival (February 4–March 4, 2021). Like Nyoni’s artwork, Boughedir’s film is an ode to Sembène’s immense influence on visual culture, and especially to the impact of early films like Black Girl and Borom Sarret (1963).

It is difficult to overstate the continued relevance and resonance of Sembène’s Black Girl. Nyoni’s visual study is a testament to how the film continues to find new audiences almost 60 years later. It remains a prescient reflection on anti-Blackness and a condemnation of dehumanizing logics that relegate the death of a young Senegalese woman to “back-page news.” It continues to speak to contemporary debates about “Africanness,” “Frenchness,” and belonging, which have only gathered urgency in recent years.6

Finding evidentiary traces of the “real” Diouana Gomis in French archives does little to change this. Nor does it displace the vital importance of aesthetic works like Sembène’s film and Nyoni’s portrait study, which supply other logics and provide different forms of reckoning.

Although her case file has been found, Diouana’s is a case that should not—cannot—be closed. I suggest we read Nyoni’s recent work, and Sembène’s film, in this light: that is, as an allegory for the split figure of Diouana Gomis, such that this real woman and Sembène’s portrayal of her might shadow each other.


This article was commissioned by Marlene Daut icon

  1. David Diop, At Night All Blood Is Black, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020).
  2. For an analysis of the film and short story on which it is based, see Doyle Calhoun, “(Im)possible Inscriptions: Silence, Servitude, and Suicide in Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de … ,” Research in African Literatures, vol. 51, no. 2 (2020).
  3. Doyle Calhoun, “Looking for Diouana Gomis (1927–1958): The Story Behind African Cinema’s Most Iconic Suicide,” Research in African Literatures (forthcoming, 2021).
  4. The concept is Freud’s but recently has been used by Lia Brozgal in Absent the Archive: Cultural Traces of a Massacre in Paris, 17 October 1961 (Liverpool University Press, 2020), 20.
  5. Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
  6. On this, see Charles Tshimanga, Didier Gondola, and Peter J. Bloom, eds., Frenchness and the African Diaspora: Identity and Uprising in Contemporary France (Indiana University Press, 2009); and Dominic Thomas, Black France: Colonialism, Immigration, and Transnationalism (Indiana University Press, 2007).
Featured image: Still from Sembène’s Black Girl. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.