Girlhood: A Beginning – Darkling

It is rare, in cinema, to see the joys, pains, struggles, and hopes of dark-skin black girls centred and celebrated: tokenized, fetishized, dehumanized, mocked, violated, caricaturized, certainly—but rarely do black girls and teens have the chance to see themselves portrayed as complex human beings. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), which I had the pleasure of watching at ReelOut, is not perfect, but it is certainly a start.

Set in the projects on the outskirts of Paris, Girlhood stars newcomer Karidja Touré as Marieme, a sixteen-year-old whose low grades have barred her from continuing her education on an academic tract. Frustrated and uncertain of her prospects, Marieme’s life is changed when she meets a group of three older girls whose freedom and confidence captivate her. Throughout the film, Marieme’s self-worth is bolstered by the sisterhood she forms with her friends, but her development is not without a price: being part of the band of girls requires Marieme to participate in violence, and at home, her already strained family relationships are highlighted as she seeks identity and self. By the end of the film, Marieme is forced to cut all ties with her family and friends, but through the support and love of the band of girls, she has grown into her own person.

A scene in Girlhood that has garnered attention in critical reviews is the one in which the four girls, having booked a night at a hotel room, dance and lip-sync together to Rihanna’s “Diamond.” The cinematography is beautiful and ethereal: the room is dark and the girls are bathed in deep, bright blue light. Marieme watches as first two, and then three of her friends dance together, laughing, their bodies close and connected. Eventually, she joins them, first abashedly and shyly, then with more confidence. It is this scene that truly encapsulates what is powerful and good about the film—that it is a celebration of black girlhood, in all its tenderness and joy, solidarity and friendship. In a film that is often violent and emotionally devastating, the innocent delight the girls take in their own bodies and in each other is a moment of beauty. The scene, and many other aspects of the film, challenges the homogenization and devaluing of dark-skin black women. In a society where racializing scripts dictate that dark-skin women must be relegated to the background of visual culture to serve as walking embodiments of negative stereotypes, and as props to benefit the narratives of light-skin or white women, this extended scene celebrating the beauty and humanity of the four girls is very powerful. In Girlhood, every central character is dark-skinned, and their personalities, emotions, and lives are distinct and believable.

The hotel room scene succeeds in its depiction of the girls, and there are many other instances throughout the film where their playfulness, humour, and fierce love for one another is emphasized. Whether confronting a white shop girl who racially profiles Marieme, or throwing themselves heart and soul into a game of mini-golf, the central characters of Girlhood are portrayed with great nuance. That is not to say, however, that Girlhood does not have its problems. While the film does seem to work to address intersections of class, race, gender, and sexuality in the marginalization of Marieme and her friends, it does not directly deconstruct them, and frequently presents the results of marginalization without their context—a narrative that can contribute to victim-blaming of oppressed groups. Throughout Girlhood, the four girls repeatedly engage in conflict with other girls—usually other dark-skin black girls. It is arguable that Sciamma’s film focuses too narrow on intracommunal violence instead of questioning or challenging the internalized misogynoir that positions black girls as enemies to each other. Further substantiating this notion is the fact that the most prominent aggressor in Marieme’s world is her older brother: black masculinity is often constructed as hyperaggressive, and serves to dehumanize and vilify black men. By focusing narrowly on Marieme’s community, the film fails in many ways to account for larger social forces that contribute to the community’s disenfranchisement. Here, the positionality of the director becomes important: although Girlhood is centred around black girls, Céline Sciamma is a white woman, and her representations of Marieme and her world should not be accepted uncritically. As audience members, it is also important for us to examine our positionality, and our situated knowledge: we must ask ourselves what elements of the film that we accept as true are based in our preconceived notions and understandings as observers. What aspects must we question and challenge as viewers?

Kingston is still a predominantly white city, and for me, this has always been alienating: walking out of the Screening Room as the ending credits played, I did not feel alienated. In the lobby, I encountered many of my black and mixed-race friends, and we tripped over our words in our excitement to utter them.

“The cinematography was so beautiful—that hotel room scene with the blue light—”

“What about the minigolf?”

“I just hope that Marieme is alright in the end—”

Girlhood was not perfect. It should not go unchallenged. But in the minutes following the film’s ending, we were not critically analysing anything. What Girlhood gave us was 112 minutes in which white people were not the focus, and in which the emotional journey of a dark-skin black girl and her friends could be the heart of a beautifully rendered feature film. Watching Girlhood in a small theatre surrounded by people who, like me, left feeling stronger and more complete, is not an experience I would trade for anything.

Thank you for reading!


6 thoughts on “Girlhood: A Beginning – Darkling

  1. Moira

    Thank you for posting this review, Darkling! I enjoyed your critique – it was well rounded and touched on not only the strengths but also the weaknesses of the film – I was especially interested in the fact that Sciamma is white. It is interesting to consider the positive aspects of this – that Sciamma is putting subjects in the spotlight that are usually obscured – and also the negative – that in the end, these black lives are still being written and directed by a white individual. This is not to criticize Sciamma – she could easily remain inside her own personal experience and not engage with portraying black experiences, and thus be spared any criticism or mistrust.
    I was also interested in your comment on black masculinity. It is important when we watch films and see works of fiction (and non fiction as well!) that we simply do not say “they are showing it as it is”. Because this isn’t a security camera with unadulterated film of day to day events – people are making artistic decisions to show certain facets of life and hide others.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing!


    1. Darkling Post author

      Hi Moira,
      Thank you very much for your comment! I think it is important to be critical of the things I enjoy, because it is easier to internalize harmful beliefs when they are coming from something that I love. I agree that it is good that Sciamma wanted to tell a story that didn’t focus on white characters and actors, because there are far too few opportunities for black actors to play nuanced roles. That said, I agree also that there is a problem when even the stories that are meant to centre black girls are being told by white people. After all, there are so many black writers and directors and producers who will never be given an opportunity to bring their narratives to life. I am still incredibly glad though that Karidja Touré and the other actors were given this opportunity to start their careers: hopefully this will lead to them all getting more roles.
      I think that your comment about positionality hits the nail on the head! It is very easy to forget that every film has a narrative, even if it is filmed in a way that feels realistic or true to life. People have made decisions on what stories to tell, and how to tell them, and they can never be neutral. When black men are routinely portrayed as violent, we have to question the prevalence of this stereotype in our media, and refuse to accept it thoughtlessly. An example that always comes to mind is that white men are the most likely to commit mass shootings, but are never labeled terrorists, and are not subjected to profiling. White male violence is never challenged, and is always treated on an individual basis (“troubled lone shooter,” “a history of mental illness,” “known as friendly and likeable by his neighbours” etc) while black men are homogenized and demonized.

      Thank you again for your comment! I really appreciate it!



  2. Rosa Queen

    Hi Darkling,
    I really enjoyed the depth and personal opinions brought out in your review. You brought up the point that the film mainly focuses on intercommunal conflicts as opposed to exploring other sources of struggle for the main characters. I feel that this almost serves the opposite purpose of the film and goes to further alienate this community, as if they have no meaningful interactions with other groups. Why do you think Sciamma chose to make a film to battle the existing stereotypes and homogenization of black women, but still chose to portray the main aggressor as Marieme’s brother, supporting the vilification of black males? It was also nice to see that during the hotel room scene, the girls are presented like any other teenager, where there colour or position in society has no effect on their innocence or friendship. In addition to this, Sciamma chose for the girls to lipsync to Rihanna, a coloured musician, as opposed to some more celebrated white musicians. Do you think this goes to further empower the girls in terms of their skin colour? Or simply a product of further separating the girls, showing black girls listening to black music? Where is the fine line in this film, between alienation of the girls by their colour and their empowerment?
    Thank you for your critical look at this film!

    -Rosa Queen


  3. Darkling Post author

    Hi Rosa Queen,
    Thank you so much for your in-depth and insightful comment! In my original post, I chose to take one possible perspective on the way Girlhood deals with antiblack racism, but I can definitely see how other perspectives are equally valid in that regard! By showing Marieme and her friends fighting almost exclusively with other dark-skin black girls, the film could also be commenting on how black women are frequently pitted against each other in a white supremacist society, and taught to treat each other as threats and competition instead of potential allies and friends. This was actually my first thought when I saw the film, but I wanted to interrogate my reaction and see the film more critically. I definitely think that black men are portrayed too frequently as hyperaggressive, but it is also a very important part of the film for Marieme to stand up against the violence in her personal life, and not to derive her worth from men who hurt or humiliate her. On the one hand, black men are, like men of any race, capable of upholding patriarchal ideals and perpetuating misogynistic violence, but on the other hand, it does need to be questioned why black men are so constantly portrayed as more violent than men of other races.

    I absolutely love the hotel room scene, and I personally think that it was very important that they danced to Rihanna. As I said before, that scene is such a celebration of black girlhood, so I think it is very fitting that the characters were lipsyncing to a talented black musician. Although I criticized the film for not contextualizing the marginalization of the characters, I believe that centring the narrative so entirely on black characters was a very powerful choice: I don’t recall the last time I got to see a film that didn’t feature a predominantly white cast, even if the protagonist was a person of colour. I think having the girls dance and lipsync to a white musician would have cheapened the scene. With Rihanna’s song repeating, over and over “we’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky” the scene celebrates black achievement, black beauty, and black sisterhood. Unlike the scenes that I criticized for centring violence against black women, the hotel room scene is joyful, and shows the girls coming closer together.

    If you haven’t seen Girlhood yet, I would highly recommend it! Thank you for your comment!



  4. Elin

    Hi Darkling,

    I truly enjoyed reading your review of Girlhood – it was written with sheer eloquence and powerfully worded. I thought that the inclusion of an evaluation of the characterization of dark-skin black women in culture, juxtaposed against their depiction in the film, through the use of racializing scripts was brilliant and highlighted the prevalence that these scripts have in society today. I further found your piece to be a powerful reflection as it addressed both the pros and cons of the film. Particularly, as you established and pointed out the lack of authentic deconstruction which occurred about the various forms of marginalizing agents that directly and adversely affected the characters in the film. I further found your evaluation of the situated knowledge and positionality of the audience members to be highly insightful and thought provoking. Overall great piece!



  5. gndsgirl11

    Your review had me at the first sentence. From from the first sentence to the last, the entire review was insightful and moving. This was another film that I really wanted to see before choosing Lilting, but after reading your review, I wish that I had gone to see this one instead. It seems as though the film was moving and real, and it was not afraid to bring up topics that are very real among society. I especially liked the part of your review when you touched upon the scene in the hotel room. I found it very moving how the director showed how women can still appreciate life even though there are many hardships that may come in their way. People in today’s society sometimes have a difficult time overcoming challenges, and I thought it was very inspiring how the director was still able to incorporate a positive side to a somewhat challenging life. After coming to Queen’s after attending a predominantly interracial high school, it was very odd for me to attend a school that is predominantly white. I thought it was very moving to hear how there were so many accepting people you were able to come into contact with after the film was over. Thank you so much for your moving review.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s