There is a dismal lack of great coming of age stories about black girls. There’s Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” or Leslie Harris’s “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” or Dee Rees’s “Pariah” – but try listing at least six off the top of your head; you’ll likely come up short. Why? Perhaps because black girlhood is a kind of myth. Black girls don’t get to experience the awkwardness of adolescence, the discovery of budding sexuality, the gradual blossoming into womanhood.
Black girls are women before they hit puberty, thrust into a kind of pseudo-adulthood by a world often unable to view them outside the context of hard-fixed stereotypes. When they grow breasts and ass in adolescence they’re warned not to be “fast”, while they’re simultaneously sexualized and exoticized and encouraged to view their sexuality as their only source of value. They’re dismissed as too aggressive and angry, while taught that to be anything other than “strong and independent” – vulnerable, playful, carefree – is to be the opposite of who they are. It’s a distinct kind of in-between, so rarely explored in any kind of substantial way.
This year, we got a movie called “Boyhood.” It was beautiful. It was also heralded by many a critic as the film of a generation, a “universal” story chronicling twelve years in the life of a young white boy growing up before our eyes over the course of three hours. But, like so many stories that focus on young white males, it’s been heavily read as gender neutral, an everyman tale that everyone should be able to relate to.
But while in many ways a soaring cinematic experience, “Boyhood” didn’t resonate with me, a lifelong Richard Linklater enthusiast, the way I thought it would. It wasn’t wholly alienating, but there were few points of entry, few moments where I could detach myself from the experience of watching the film and actually experience the film. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s one of the main reasons why Céline Sciamma’s “Girlhood” is so vital.
Sciamma is known for her past forays into the female coming of age story with “Water Lillies” and “Tomboy,” but here she shifts her focus exclusively to a 16 year-old black girl, Marieme (Karidja Toure), as she grapples with her own state of in-between, dealing with bad grades at school, a crush on a boy from the block, and the menacing violence of her controlling older brother.
While the film’s French title “Bande de filles” can be translated to “Girl Gang,” naming it “Girlhood” for the English market is its first playful and defiant gesture. Here, Marieme, a dark-skinned black girl living in the ‘hood just outside of Paris, gets to be the universal everywoman, the singular point in the narrative with which we must constantly be engaged.
Marieme becomes friends with a tough group, led by the savvy and charismatic Lady (Assa Sylla), who introduce her to a world of shoplifting, drinking and drugs, and YouTubed street fights. Gratefully, Sciamma does not turn this into a kind of cautionary tale, an ethnographic foray into the lives of wild packs of “ratchets”. The girls are not condemned or dismissed for their bad behavior, or held to a higher standard that in their white counterparts is so often romanticized (think “Palo Alto”, for instance.) Instead, their actions are presented without bias and without judgement.
There’s a scene halfway through the movie where Marieme and her three friends rent out a hotel room to party – they put on shoplifted club dresses, drink whiskey and soda, smoke blunts. The scene isn’t about the dark path Marieme is headed down. It’s a scene about friendship, about autonomy, about the brief exuberance of being young.
Rihanna’s “Diamonds” begins, and we watch the four friends sing along for its entire duration, the camera never pulling away. It’s a simple, universal moment. But it’s one that for every black woman will resonate with a kind of burning nostalgia. In a movie landscape where there are so few depictions of black girls getting to be black girls, it’s a moment of pure cinematic joy.
There is so much to praise in this film, from its elegant cinematography, to its naturalistic and captivating performers. But the highest praise that I can give this film is in its deft ability in capturing the unique process of growing up that so many black girls, especially those of low socioeconomic status must navigate. That struggle between embracing both our hardness and fragility, our strength and weakness. And so, again, “Girlhood” is vital, a reminder that there is so much more to be said, so much more beauty and complexity to be explored, in the coming-of-age story.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.