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!