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What’s Good on Netflix: Girlhood


Writer/Director: Celine Sciamma

Producers: Rémi Burah, Bénédicte Couvreur, Olivier Père

Starring: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré

When director Celine Sciamma, a white French woman, talked to black cinema blog Shadow and Act about her film Girlhood and the representations of black girls and women on screen—and the problem/solution to it—Sciamma exclaimed “I’m making this [movie] universal and I decide that my character, who represents the youth of today for me, can be black. But then some people may tell you… (The interviewer intercedes…) “She’s no longer universal then”… to which Sciamma replies “But it should be!” When it comes to representation of race (as well as gender) what should and should not be represented and how it’s represented—and who gets to choose—has been a long lasting issue in the world of cinema. I have some friends, both white folks who do not like the word “should” because it implies a singular, personal agenda cloaked in colloquialism. The issue is that most white Americans feel they should be able to do whatever they want. And because we’re all human (when the white establishment says so) everybody should have access to whatever they want (but only by the establishment’s terms) Sciamma says earlier in the interview “Girlhood is not about what it is to be a black girl, it’s about what it’s like to be a girl.” Well, I’m here to say, that not only does Sciamma not accomplish this, by default of a couple of things –race and culture– but it is incredibly hard to make a film that transcends race. Just because you dye your hair silver, purple, or Gatorade cool breeze blue, doesn’t mean you transcended race. And just because you construct a lot of beautiful, mesmerizing, visceral scenes in order to create a tale of girlhood, you don’t necessarily transcend race either. Sorry, Charlie…or, Celine.

Girlhood is about a black French teenaged girl named Marieme (Karidja Toure’) who, in distress about her future, joins a group of girls…not a gang like Netflix and IMDb term them, which opens her up to experiences that stir her seemingly away, from normative societal narratives for young girls. The main issue of the film is that Marieme seems to be lacking a sense of purpose.  In the films opening scene, Marieme and a group of girls are entrenched in an intense, all girl football game. Helmets, pads, and everything.  Somebody say feminism for me one tyyyyyme. But what most people get wrong about feminism, is that it’s all encompasing, and that feminism and its boundaries usually change when it comes to queer women and women of color. Some, not all women of color subscribe, if they subscribe at all, to either second or third wave feminism. The third wave, and the kind of bridge between the two (notably pursued by people like Audre Lorde and bell hooks) is not out uplift women by subjugating men, but to promote equality through allowing women the choice to make their lives.  This even includes, their right to define feminism for themselves. It promotes partnership with men, instead of competition with them.  Unfortunately this is a problem Sciamma runs into when she tries to attribute white feminist values to black girls. However, the depth of this opening sequence is in the fact that the girls are doing something they want to do, without anyone telling them what to do. Awesome. And when it comes to Marieme seen during one of the panoramic frames of the squads in celebration, we see her happy as a bee circulating a flower pod. But it is Marieme’s lack of good academic consistency, sharing care taking duties of her two younger sisters with an intense, sometimes abusive older brother, and her part time job as a maid side by side with her mother, that seems to have Marieme slipping deeper into the mundane—a sea of invisibility. With her girls, Lady, Adiatou (catch that?) and Fily, who she meets when propositioned by Lady to join them, Marieme begins to feel important, secure, and beautiful.

There are at least three things in this film that help locate it as partly black cinema. The signifying features of clothing (Jordan’s) and hairstyle (weave, cornrows, wigs) and their significance to the characters (Jordan’s connecting them hip hop and youth culture. And the hairstyles symbolizing either being too poor to afford a hairstylist or an attempt to fit in) along with depiction of black cultural expression, such as dancing, slang use, modes of behavior,and concerns, links this film to a cinema of the black experience. Sciamma desired to make  coming of stage story (her previous two films were of the same accord) and she did; this just so happened to be about black people. One thing Sciamma, as well as many white American and/or European directors, as most white people in general, need to know, is that you cannot incorporate black bodies into a production and/or institution and not admit them their experience. And culture. Essentially what you are doing is white washing. Sciamma’s desire to render black as universal is naive, and slightly irresponsible.  But, what you do get, is a look inside the lives of black girls and a black girl experience. Nothing wrong with that. One of the most endearing, fantastically crafted sequences in the film is when Marieme, Lady and the others, get a hotel room and throw a party. During in which they have an all out lip sync session to Rhianna’s “Diamonds” In true music video fashion, the sequence starts with a close- up shot of Lady, encapsulated in blue light–gorgeous.  She starts to sing and looks at the camera, trying  to play the part of R&B vixen but can’t do it. She starts smiling, and while breaking the fourth wall, she lip syncs the lines–  “Fine light in the beautiful sea/ I choose to be happy”. She continues performing “You and I, You and I/we’re like diamonds in the sky” and turns to Adaitou, who joins in the singing. The “you” becoming another woman, a friend, or a sister. Like a scene on a club dance floor, the two friends dance  in jubilee, enjoying each other. This doesn’t scream, “black girls are beautiful, black girls are everything” at first. But when Fily gets in and starts to dance with her girlfriends—to a song by an Afro Caribbean American—and when scene cuts to Marieme on the bed gazing in wonderment at these girls coupled with Sciamma’s choice of the long take, running just long enough for you to realize, that this is a black girl experience. They’re unity, and shared experience allows them humanity. The use of blue light, the number of women in the shot and time length of these shots along with the song lyrics–suggest a freedom from men, and societal boundaries. Blackness remains apart of it–Not as a burden, nor affliction–but a connection. 

Marieme doesn’t seem to preoccupied with this, but more focused on getting out and getting ahead. And the more she takes opportunities to experience things such as her first kiss, in a dimly lit stairwell of her choice, a scene captivating as it is empowering as it is romantic–her first fight, sisterhood, and being a bully, Marieme’s life starts to  becomes complicated. The faster she goes the more the protective walls of normalcy start crumbling. She has to start making decisions for herself, which start to effect others like her impressionable middle sister. One of the main obstacles to her freedom is,  you guessed it–a guy. Rather, the cultural influence of male hegemony. In instances when Marieme feels a bit elated, or happy with where her life is going, a controlling man seems to knock her back down to reality–sometimes literally. In one scene, when Marieme returns home, her brother, who’s lying on the couch like some out of work, beat father with their younger sister at his feet, calls Marieme over, and who sits next to him on the floor. He dryly tells her not to turn her phone off. Then he places his arm around her in what appears to be a loving touch, until it gradually turns into a chokehold. Cyril Mendy who plays her brother, in his superb acting merely moves a muscle. It’s almost like he’s talking to rag doll. The shot makes it look like less of a move to totally dominate and more of a frightening demonstration of grounding. He lets her go, as their sister awakens and jumps on him, both of them laughing, while Marieme’s position becomes reinforced.

Girlhood is a story about a black girl attempting to create space in order to shape her own life. Sciamma’s character does more to escape the normative narrative of “girlhood” by independency and will (very existentialist) then she does trying to escape blackness, the way that Sciamma fantasized the character  would. What people don’t realize, white or black, is that blackness is not bad. It is nothing a person needs to escape from. It’s really inescapable. However, what is escapable is the sub-human narrative we attribute black people and women and blackness (and womanhood). Girlhood’s power is that it is about a black girl— a girl –trying to transcend her own narrative of nothingness.


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