There was a reason why the theater was packed Thursday night by the time my friend and I showed up a few minutes late to the Minneapolis International Film Festival’s screening of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood. I bought the $13 ticket to the film online via the MSPIFF website. The film was showing at St. Anthony Main theater, which is an old neighborhood that often attracts students and movie-goers interested in less “main stream” or big-budget Hollywood films. As we entered the darkened theater we quickly said hello to a friend and found our seats in the back of the room. We had just missed the opening scene.
Girlhood is a French Banlieue-film following Marieme, 15-year old Black girl living in the projects who finds a place to belong in a band of three other working-class Black girls in her neighborhood. These young women have been rejected by a school system that failed them, abused by the Black men who live amongst them, and oppressed by a culture of White supremacy. The girls gravitate towards each other because each understands what it means to be a Black girl, and in their “girl gang” they find space to express their anger, their fears, their desires, and their hopes–space that Black girls often do not get in white-dominated society. As the movie progresses Marieme, Lady, Adiatou, and Fily find the nucleus of their friendship effected more and more by outside forces–bending but never breaking their Black female solidarity. The outside and inside worlds of the groups increasingly coalesce as the girls have to deal with abusive male figures, violent conflict with other “girl gangs”, racist shopkeepers, and fraught intersections of racism and sexism that effect their adolescence in really deep ways.
The fact that the theater was packed indicates that film audiences are starved for complex representations of Black womanhood. However, I argue that representation is not enough. Instead of fully exploring the systematic injustices that lead to the violence and marginalization that happens to these young women, Sciamma seems to be “cataloging situations according to pre-existing images and narratives provided by French cinema or mainstream media about urban, working class black girlhood” (Fanta). Girlhood is compelling in that it provides a rare representation of Black women that does not fall back on stereotypical and dehumanizing tropes. However, despite the presence of representation, the white direction of the film still relies on dried out and incomplete narratives of Black womanhood (i.e.”struggle of the black woman”), leaving experiential representation of Black women uncomplicated and incomplete. Specifically, the representation on screen still requires us to buy into boiled-down images of violent Black men who oppress the agency and sexuality of Black women. Because Sciamma is white, this narration is not reflective of her actual experiences as a Black girl. We must problematize her representations of Black women in Girlhood and consider that these representations are “born from her fascination and not from a black teenage girl’s lived experiences” (Chew-Bose).
Before I dive into my critique of the film, however, I want to touch on the reasons why I found the film to be a very compelling and important new type of representation of Black girlhood. The cast of the film was exclusively Black, and the 4-5 main characters of the film were exclusively Black girls. This is something we rarely, if ever, see in mainstream film or media. I believe Sciamma did something very important with the exclusivity of Black girls in the film. It opened the characters and the actors up for self-expression unhindered by a male gaze or a white gaze. One precious moment of unfiltered Black girlhood that stands out is a scene in which the girls are in a hotel room dressed up and singing to Rihanna’s Diamonds.
I actually cried during this scene because I realized just how valuable a moment like this is in film. I, a white viewer, caught a glimpse of Black girlhood as I had rarely–if ever–seen it represented on screen. As I reflected on the similarities my white girlhood shared with these girls’ Black girlhood (I, too, have been known to belt out and dance around to pop hits with my buds), I also came to understand the stark and important differences that separate my experiences as a young white woman from experiences of Black and Brown women. You can tell that the girls themselves savored this moment in the hotel room because they had “conceived a space that was entirely theirs, not defined by the odds that are stacked against them…” (Chew-Bose). This space arose from the Black girl exclusivity of this moment; they were all in that room together knowing and sharing the painful experiences of marginalization, yet expressing deep-rooted knowledge that they are beautiful and strong, despite this society that continually tells them they are not. I believe that Sciamma created this moment in Girlhood to display the potential for and beautiful desperation of self-possession among Black girls and women who are taught to always be cautious in the expression of their levity and desires.
One moment in the theater brought me back to bell hooks’s “Oppositional Gaze”. A few Black women were sitting behind me and throughout the movie I couldn’t help but take not of their verbal reactions to different scenes. In an early scene of the movie, Marieme is followed by a white shopkeeper who is suspicious that she may steal something from the store. One of the women behind me let out a soft snort and commented, “Yep, it happens to all of us,” which was received with mumbles of affirmation by her friends. bell hooks writes that, “Most of the black women I talked with were adamant that they never went to movies expecting to see compelling representations of black femaleness. They were all acutely aware of cinematic racism–its violent erasure of black womanhood” (hooks 119). Girlhood tries wholeheartedly to provide compelling representations of black girlhood and combat the erasure of these experiences. In many instances, Sciamma succeeds in this venture, and I believe the woman sitting behind me would agree–at least for that one scene of the film. Moments in the theater when emotion was heightened (for example, during the “Diamonds” scene) were moments when the audience was experiencing rare and compelling representations of Black girlhood. However, we cannot gloss over Sciamma’s whiteness and how that plays in to the incomplete depictions of Black girlhood–particularly in her representation of Black girls’ relationships to Black men. Drawing on Marieme’s relationship with her brother, I would like to complicate Sciamma’s portrayal of Black masculinity in Girlhood.
Sciamma uses Marieme’s brother to play the part of the oppressive Black man who physically and emotionally abuses her. No doubt, domestic violence is real for millions of Black and white girls, and it is important that the movie addresses this reality. However, Sciamma’s representations of Marieme’s brother is uncomplicated; she does not attempt to explore social and cultural reasons for his anger and violence. What does his blackness, his class, or his gender have to do with it? Undoubtedly, a lot–but Sciamma never complicates Marieme’s brother’s social positionality or pushes us to see him as anything other than a violent and oppressive black man. The “violent Black man” is a trope that we see over and over again in media and film. he is a danger not only to society in general, but specifically to Black women. This stereotype has fed the criminalization and mass incarceration of Black men and leads to the systematic marginalization of communities of color, rendering Black men and women poverty stricken and perpetual second-class citizens. Sciamma dropped the ball on her representation of Black maleness, and in doing so she perpetuates dominant stereotypes that lead to the marginalization of Black men and women.
Sciamma is a white woman attempting to represent the experience of being a Black girl living in the projects. She does many things very well, but her exploration is based on “fascination and not from a black teenage girl’s lived experiences” (Chew-Bose). Representations of blackness by white directors, no matter how well intentioned, are limited. Sciamma could only go so far, filling in the gaps with overused narratives about oppressed Black girls without attempting to complicate those stories. Violent portrayals of Black men does harm to Black women and fail to represent the actual experiences of Black girls and the ways that racism effects them and their families. Indeed, complex representations of Black girlhood are incomplete without complex Black male characters.
Representation is very complex and tricky. We can see the obvious pitfalls of white directors telling the stories of people of color. However, it must be noted that any representation in film or media is only representation. Jacqueline Bobo’s discussion of articulations makes the significant point that, “The social group and the signifying text are not the same. An articulation occurs because a social alliance forms it, in a political act, which makes the group which makes the group a cohesive one for a time, as long as it goes on acting for a political purpose” (Bobo 221). We cannot take Marieme’s story and say “this is the experience of Black girlhood.” No matter how nuanced and complicated a filmic representation is, it cannot be made to stand in for an entire social group. As Bobo notes, important social alliance may tie a text to a social group because of it’s political purpose of complicating the experiences of a marginalized group. Complex representation is important because it gives individuality to social groups that are so often generalized. Marieme’s individuality gives voice to the individual expression of all Black girls. Their experiences are binding–as the Black woman who sat behind me understood Marieme’s frustration with being followed by a shopkeeper–but they are also unique. Sciamma goes a long way in giving complexity to Black girlhood, but representation also requires the voicing of lived experiences and the constant consideration of social forces that give rise to individual and collective experience.
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