2020 will go down in history as a year in which there has been great social unrest and societal divisions throughout the word. Global uprisings have exposed new fault lines that are racial, socio economic, physical and ideological as the Coronavirus has forced us into our homes and sustained police brutality against Black people has forced millions of people from every race and ages onto the street in protest. This particular uprising may have been the largest scale movement in history but it has steadily been growing over decades, with demands for fair and honest representation in media, workplaces ,job opportunities and decent housing as well as the repatriation of African art to the continent have become resistant themes . So it is again this engaged but polarised backdrop that this year we have been treated with a spate of releases that chronicle black girlhood in all of its complexities, carrying on an emergence of tales of coming of age stories centred around the Black girl Miss Juneteenth, Cuties and Rocks have offered critiques on the way that limiting socio-economic circumstances, gender, race and religion play into the formation of an intersectional identity, but also the resilience of the Black spirit, the importance of families and community and cultural solidarity and identity.
Black coming of age films have actually been around for much longer than the current movement, Leslie Harris’ 1992 feature Just Another Girl on the I.R.T was the prototypical film for many on this list. The genre received renewed interest when the French film Girlhood was released in 2014 to critical acclaim and commercial success. This momentum has been bolstered by successes of slice of life Black films like Moonlight and Last Black Man in San Francisco and a growing distaste for Afro-pessimistic narratives.
The French Connection
Upon its release, Céline Sciamma’s 2014’s critical darling Girlhood delivered new interpretations of French femininity. However groundbreaking it was upon its release, the film does perpetuate problematic stereotypes such as drug dealing, prostitution and normalised violence, although these shortcomings may be indicative of a story told through a white lens, and highlights France’s difficult relationship with race at large.
The other French film in this offering is the highly controversial and polarising Cuties, that premiered this year on Netflix, against an uproar for its misjudged, exploitative gaze. Whilst the film was highly problematic, and concerns over safeguarding were rightly asked, the controversy eclipsed some important critiques of French culture. The film follows shy and lonely Amy, negotiating her identity through joining a dance group in which they perform highly sexualised dance moves. Amy’s two opposing notions of Black femininity are informed by the hypersexiualised video vixen, and her Muslim mother, who has relucantly allowed her father to take another wife. The film questions the hypervisibility and invisibility of the Black female body, double-consciousness and the systematic oppression that besets Black women in society. The ‘tragic Black heroine’ trope has history in French film from Ousmane Diop’s 1966 film Black Girl which sees a woman commit sucidie in response to the systemic racism that kept her oppressed.
Race, Religion, Gender and Adultification are all essential to the complexities of being a Black girl in these films which means there are so many other stories to tell where characters are not categorised into easy tropes but can explore without labels what it is to be human love, hurt, grow, have joy and heal in today’s world.
Is there Black in the Union Jack?
More optimistic portrayal in the English offering Rocks where its eponymous character must grow up early and quickly when her mother disappears. Here, we see the Black British sister-hood in all its glory; the school is a cacophony of multiculturalism, and of the Black diaspora at large – we are treated to see inside the living rooms of the different black spaces, an important feature of Black Lives . Rocks grapples with issues surrounding mental-health, education, the importance of extended family in the Black British culture, and the foster care system with pathos and humility. The film sensitively highlights the resilience of this Black child, and it also makes it clear that she shouldn’t have to be.
Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman is the central motif of Miss Juneteenth, the poem that won Turquoise Jones the coveted title, and a full scholarship to a Black university, and it is the poem that she forces her daughter Kai to perform at that same pageant. The problem is, Turquoise doesn’t see herself as a phenomenal woman, but she finds out her daughter is. Miss Juneteenth is a girlhood film by proxy, a stunning tale of a mother that longs for her daughter to live a life that is just beyond her grasp, and a daughter who understands the sacrifices made for her and the phenomenal women they will be despite economic circumstances.
Not all films concern Black girls from lower socio-econmic backgrounds, Jinn and Pariah, both American offerings examine girls who challenge traditional notions of sexuality and religion, and discuss how these differences impact their own Black identity. For Jinn, Summer, a confident and beautiful high-schooler, must decide who she is going to be when her mother, a successful but lost woman converts to Islam. Summer tries to negotiate her own identity, sexuality within a new culture that she does not understand, given a glimpse into the divisions within the African American community, and the lingering Islamophobia that is still present within the United States today. Similarly Pariah, follows queer teen Alike as she explores her sexual identity, amid tension from her conversative parents.
Slice of life isn’t the only type of film that has recently been used as a tool for exploring Black girlhood and formulations of identity, in fact films from the 90’s such as Beloved and Daughters of the Dust examine Black spirtuality, family, and the ongoing trauma of slavery through a Southern Gothic and magical realist lens. Contemporary iterations like Mati Diop’s Atlantics hauntingly use ghosts to discuss African corruption and the reality of migrant refugees. Beasts of the Southern Wild uses magical realism to explore the tragedy of hurricane Katrina, and follows Hushpuppy as she begins to envision a world of her own. Similarly The Girl With All the Gifts is a British science fiction horror that examines the possibilities of a young black girl, when she must destroy the world to make way for a new life and new opportunities with herself at the centre.
These films all highlight the enduring strength and resilience of the Black girl, whilst infusing dance, joy and family connections often at times of adversity, most importantly the films tell stories of these children being girls, when so often Black girlhood is misinterpreted, discarded and erased. There is still a way to go with representation of the full spectrum of Black lives, but the answer may be already coming as more independent Black filmmakers are creating content for the growing appetite, interest alertness of global Black audiences and new platforms and ways of communication will begin to generate the revenues that will ultimately fuel a sustainable industry. Technology is allowing us to find ever more creative ways of accessing once and remote films about back and provide a context and connectivity created by the festivals, archives and informed discussions.
Sula Douglas Folkes