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Before the third act of Celine Sciamma’s 2014 French film Girlhood, we learn the leader of the film’s star quartet is not named “Lady” as we have known her- a title of high respect and homage appropriate to alpha female leadership of her own crew growing up together in Paris’s banlieue. She is, quite simply, “Sophie,” as one crew member finds out her mother calls her. Yet, this late reveal of Lady’s softer, nascent identity (as played by newcomer Assa Sylla) is at core of what the film about black girls in France is all about.
While teenagers assume “aka” monikers akin to their fantasy selves all the time, these girls’ fantasy selves exist and steadily transform to jettison them closer and closer to their real selves in a subtle, tender verisimilitude I have not seen black girls get to have onscreen since Leslie Harris’s 1992 Independent Spirit Award-winning film Just Another Girl on the IRT. It is the most honest, determined cinematic viewpoint on black youth since 1994’s Hoop Dreams. Girlhood is stunning.
Played by amateur actors auditioned in malls and shopping centers, the group of young women in Girlhood hold tight as one strong organism until the last quarter of the film, when 16-year old protagonist Marieme (Karidja Toure) leaves the group and her home to further her life beyond unremarkable but uninspiring family circumstances. She lives with her overworked and absent mother Asma (Binta Diop), a hotel maid, and looks after her two younger sisters while her overbearing brother Abou (Djibrl Gueye) uses his physical prowess to keep them all in line. She is headed for baccalaureat, the French high school equivalent, and questioning what it will do for her life. We first see her on her team of girls who play American football, a foreshadowing of the asexual and tomboyish appearance Marieme necessitates by the end of the film. A father is, inexplicably, not in the home.
Yet men in general are not in the movie but to serve as foils against which women maneuver and find themselves. Marieme becomes mesmerized by the trio of Lady and her diehard followers, Fily (Marietoue Toure) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh). Like many black girls in the Western world, they rely on hair weaves and haute couture knockoffs to assume visions of royal beauty in contrast to their African heritages. And that they are a constant study in contrasts is what makes them so human and loveable.
The girls boost dresses and clothes, but Lady sees a white clerk following Marieme and confronts her, calling her a “shop slave” who has no business being suspicious. They walk past men with their innocence held high in public, but they drink and get high together secretly in private.They compete in organized fight matches as other kids cheer on and film these aggressive battles, but Marieme spots her little sister in a group of bullies and demands that her sister “obey” when she tears her from the group. Marieme tells her first boyfriend to stop when he tries to become intimate, yet she comes to his home in the middle of the night and demands him to undress before she loses her virginity to him.
This boyfriend, Ismael (Idrissa Diabate), is first the catalyst to launch our heroine from her girlfriends and family; her brother finds out and his beating is Marieme’s finale straw to run away for freedom. But he becomes the centerpiece she flees back to in the crisis her first try at real adulthood brings. After she winds through the odyssey of her girlhood and needs a rest stop, Ismael proposes marriage. She is flattered, but balks at his reduction to just “give me a kid” and be his “little wife.”
And her instincts are correct. As all teenagers do, Marieme becomes bored easily. Just as we get comfortable with her next personality shift, costuming catches her viewers up to her new mental preoccupation. She begins as a girl-next-door in discount school clothes, becomes a glamorous Barbarella in her gang’s stolen dress-up, assumes a fire red-dressed and platinum blonde wig persona after her abrupt move to traffic drugs for a big local dealer, and finally lands a chest-banded tomboy with tight cornrows as she separates herself from her work in a defiant statement the big boss finally challenges her on. And she wins.
All this occurs in a feminine cinematic tableau of warm pastels, cool blues, and dim citrus colors framing black girls’ bodies and profiles like a portrait included in Kehinde Wiley’s “An Economy of Grace,” a collection of black women models handpicked from Caribbean streets (the cinematographer is Crystel Fournier). The tall and slender dark chocolate girls tower in most frames except high action shots, such as the fight matches and sequences to show them approach their next adventure. They will rest as nymphs tumbled atop one another in a hotel bed during an escapade Marieme has stolen family money to pay for, and flare up as fierce allies against similar girl crews on the Paris Metro if they must. No matter the scene, the beauty they are always going for inside comes through.
Credit should be given to their director Sciamma, a white female, for doing what she is quoted in the Guardian as setting out to: “I did not see myself making a film about black women, but with black women.” Additionally, she reveals the film (like her characters) as an evolving work-in progress nearly up until post-production. Sciamma switched her characters’ races to black because she was distraught how few black faces presented in French cinema, and she only sought permission to use Trinidadian superstar Rihanna’s megahit song “Diamonds” after the film’s final cut. The star and her management consoled all worries of removing the scene once they saw Girlhood and loved it so much it was their honor to be included.
This non-racialized subjectivity of Sciamma’s characters leads to true star-making performances buoyed by agency and not objectification or victimhood. The girls are fantastic in the hotel room scene where they dress up in stolen gowns to lip-sync the entire “Diamond,” song. It is a moment of fluid and seamless cinematic joy so honest it feels like peeking into a young girl’s closed bedroom door with her friends giggling behind it. The electric blue filter washed over them is not nearly as electrifying as they are. The spine-tingling electronica score by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier returns after their performance, to give sensation of sailing fast and flying low or hard depending on where the girls’ emotional roller coaster is at the moment.
Compared to 2013 Palm d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color, a French coming-of-age film whose deeper strengths became overshadowed by its male director’s extended lesbian lovemaking scenes, Girlhood is an afterschool film. I was relieved for that, as I am like many black women still burdened by global stereotypes of easy hypersexuality and pleasure for cheap hire. One must only peruse the backwoods of Craigslist to see antagonism to black female attractiveness outside of prurient expectations; the majority of veiled escort ads request white, Asian, Latin or Indian women only and this mostly changes when a woman-seeker expresses a fascination with black women’s presumed voluptuous behinds. Sciamma resists shooting the girls from behind. If she does, our eyez zero in on the backs of their heads, begging us to know the thoughts their faces don’t show. With exception of one scene of teams dancing with fixation on the girls’ muscular and rhythmic thighs, Girlhood has no nudity or sex.
Their fragility is paramount, even as they fight and drink and get high. Lady senses Marieme’s strength and potential to dominate, but handles it softly with an insecure confidence her gang loves her enough to let her have. We leave the film knowing they all may just be in a rebellious phase or maybe not, but no matter what their next cycle of womanhood brings, these girls were real and a gift to know in the short time we did spend with them.
Girlhood (Bande de Filles) (Running time: 153 minutes)
Director: Céline Sciamma / Writer: Céline Sciamma (screenplay)
Girlhood screened at Cannes and was nominated for four awards at the 40th Cesar Awards, including Best Director for Sciamma and Most Promising Actress for Karidja Toure. It won the Stockholm International Film Festival’s Bronze Horse for Best Film.