When I was young, I performed make-believe concerts in my
room, lip-syncing to old SWV songs with my best friend. I learned what a “hoe”
was, while learning what it meant to be a Muslim. I wanted to wear my hair like Da Brat, and date O-Dog from "Menace II
Society." I read novels by Terry McMillan and Danzy Senna, and idolized
Malcolm X. I was trying to find a place to identify.
The coming of age genre in filmmaking is one of the most celebrated, and can be one of the most isolating in terms of representation. There weren’t many coming of age films about black girls when I was growing up, and throughout my life, that hasn’t changed. Still, I’ve connected to the honest portrayals of black girlhood in "Our Song," the lessons about familial grief and death in"Crooklyn," and later, the will to proclaim a sexual identity in "Pariah." Beyond these films, I’ve been impacted by the universality of youth, confusion, and burgeoning sexuality in "Raising Victor Vargas," "Fish Tank," and "Mosquita y Mari."
Recently, I binge-watched old episodes of "The Wire". I was pulled into the honest, affecting portrayals of black boyhood in the midst of poverty, drugs, crime, and innocence during season four. The exploration of black masculinity and self- definition was powerful, especially in a scene where Namond loses his masculine façade and breaks down in tears after attempting to bully another boy. In the course of the season, I’d managed to connect to each of these characters on a personal level, wondering about their lives and motivations as I shopped for groceries, drove my car, and even as I went to sleep.
How powerful it would’ve been if the same portrayals were extended to black girls, who face some of the same barriers to survival as black boys, but are often overlooked. In fact, no woman is more likely to be murdered or raped in this country than a black woman. Black girls also represent the fastest growing segment of the juvenile population in secure confinement.
President Obama recently announced an initiative entitled “My Brothers Keeper,”-- a $200 million public and private sector effort that will direct resources to black and Hispanic Boys. The initiative was accompanied by a 60-page task force report outlining recommendations about early education, healthcare, and job training for black male youth. The president has cited his experiences growing up as a wayward youth, and the recent Trayvon Martin verdict as reasons for the initiative. Many people have criticized the initiative, including 210 prominent black men who penned an open letter to Obama, urging the inclusion of black girls and women in “My Brother’s Keeper.”
While the initiative is an important step toward acknowledging systemic racism perpetuated against black males, how do we fully evaluate these widespread issues if we don’t also consider how they intersect with the lives of black girls, in different ways? This national initiative and debate underscores the need for the recognition of black girls and other girls of color in popular cinema. In framing the black struggle so firmly within a black male scope, we forget the intersection of race, class, and gender. We forget how varying systems of exclusion, racism, and harassment affect black men and women, as well as other communities of color.
Coming of age films can serve as important tools in this process of self-identification and preservation, both for youth and adults. To many, the portrayal of Hushpuppy in Ben Zeitlin’s "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was exciting in this way. With her golden afro and fighting spirit, she learned lessons about love and family amidst an environmental disaster. It was nice to see a black girl save the day.
Other directors have continued the trend of highlighting black girl protagonists. French director Celine Sciamma recently premiered her film "Girlhood (Bande De Filles)" at Cannes, to critical praise. The film focuses on a black girl named Marieme who starts a new life after meeting a group of free-spirited girls, and seeking entry into their collective. It suggests a similar exploration of adolescence and sexuality to her past work.
Another refreshing portrayal comes in the form of Stefani Saintonge’s short film, "Seventh Grade," which was the winner of the 2014 Essence Black Women in Hollywood Short Film Contest, and centers on a young black girl named Patrice who stands up for her friend when a raunchy rumor threatens her reputation, and learns about sexuality and adolescence in the process. With strong performances, the film finds clever ways to show how social media both influences and impacts the way today’s youth encounter sexuality. It also critiques respectability politics, showing how black girls come to understand sexuality as complex beings, rather than one-dimensional caricatures.
In the end, it’s about identification. To know that another black girl is confused, is high-achieving but lonely, is a tomboy like Monica in "Love & Basketball," awkward like Issa Rae, or struggles with self-esteem and body issues while dancing in her room- is to know ourselves. When there are so many attempts at reducing the complexity of people of color in media, it matters greatly when directors do the opposite.