On Girlhood, a film by Céline Sciamma
by Fanta Sylla
In April, a beautiful teaser of the movie Girlhood was released showing, in one long track, the promise of the great carefree black girl film that could have been. It first lingered on the face of what we presumed was the main character, Marieme (played by Karidja Touré) and then unveiled a line of girls who we cannot hear but who we see lively interacting with each other, Para One's electro soundtrack in the background. The colorful teaser did its job: it made me curious about a film I was skeptical about after having read its synopsis almost a year ago. Then there was the Cannes Festival where the film was shown to critical acclaim. There were murmurs about an unconventional all black, feminist film and a lot of noise about a certain scene involving four black girls dancing and singing to Rihanna’s Diamonds.
There is no fixed definition of “Carefree Black Girl.” CFBG is constantly conceptualized, re-imagined, discussed through chats, hashtags and reblogs mostly within online platforms and social media spaces and the definition varies according to the person doing the defining. To me, the carefree black girl imaginary has a lot in common with Derica Shields’ definition of “weird.” CFBG is a utopian and futuristic project which imagines a world in which black girlhood isn't constrained, policed or disciplined by any gaze, law, convention or language. It’s about black women’s ability to transform themselves, to change and circulate as they wish. It anticipates black girl joy and freedom. Thus, if “carefree black girl” was a film genre, it would be a sub-category of science-fiction. CFBG should ridicule and render obsolete The Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and other oppressive archetypes. It disrupts and deconstructs conventional and stereotypical images of black girl/womanhood. It inspires new ways of beings on screen and off, unfolds new narratives.
The audacious opening scene of Girlhood shows a group of black girls playing American football. It is complete fantasy, something we have never seen before. It doesn’t look like we’re in France, it doesn't look like we’re in America, and it looks like an unknown elsewhere. I know that Sciamma loves Friday Night Lights and so I am moved by this idea of displacing a territory (America) into another familiar one (the Parisian banlieue) to create a strange cinematic space. For a minute I believed that the film would continue on this direction, that we’d follow these athletic girls forming a powerful and indestructible pack in some weird and unfamiliar adventure. These girls looked like they could make anything happen. It wasn’t the case. Right after this scene, we follow the girls on their way home. They are talking, laughing until they grow silent. Around them we can see young men in the shadows, and we’re meant to deduce that they are the reason why the girls stopped talking. Carefree time is over.
Banlieue-films are to French cinema what hood films are to Hollywood (banlieue-films are heavily influenced by the American genre.) The genre was born in the 80’s with a desire to document the lives of post-colonial immigrants in the outskirts of France’s major cities. The narratives of banlieue-films usually happen in housing projects. At first, the genre mostly focused on stories about male characters but in the early 2000’s more films started to explore girlhood in the banlieue. The political context influenced this gender shift in the genre. In the 2000’s, a feminist movement (Ni Putes Ni Soumises) emerged from the banlieue, denouncing the violent sexism faced by women and girls living in these urban spaces. These feminists constructed the racist and threatening figure of the "Arab Boy" (could be interchangeably black, Arab, Muslim) this patriarchal and super violent male figure who rapes, and assaults and oppresses the female population. This image was proliferated by media and instrumentalized by many political parties. Films made during this period didn't try to challenge this image, on the contrary, most films centered on black/brown women featured the "Arab Boy," a inhibitor of speech and movement, from whom women must emancipate themselves. Often this emancipation required the physical elimination of Arab or Black male characters.
In Girlhood, Marieme’s brother provides the figure of the oppressive black/brown man. He physically assaults Marieme and represses her sexuality while the other men in the housing project constantly police her and her friend’s bodies. Suburban black girlhood has been the subject of a few films (La Squale, Ain't Scared) and all of them reduce their black female characters to their social position i.e. victim of an unjust school system, oppressive male presence and racism. All these themes are in Girlhood in a way that feels like Sciamma is just cataloguing situations according to pre-existing images and narratives provided by French cinema or mainstream media about urban, working class black girlhood.
In many interviews Céline Sciamma asserted that she didn't want her film to be like most banlieue-films (grim, documentary-like), and this was why she chose to shoot the film during summer time, in 'Scope and write a fictional story, with fictional characters. But as someone who has watched, studied and researched banlieue-films I don’t see much difference between Girlhood and previous films of the genre. It’s true that the film has better lighting, is more stylized, that there is attention paid to color (blue is the warmest color here too…) and the 'Scope makes the housing project look bigger than in most banlieue-films. Superficial changes which left me unimpressed as they do not transfigure or radically question the dominant aesthetic and deterministic ideology of the genre.
The French title, Bande de Filles ("Band of Girls"), the promotion of the film, the teaser, all promised a (black) girl power story. This is half of the film. The English title is more honest as the narrative actually focuses on Marieme (played by Karidja Touré) and her individual journey. Even though she’s the face we see constantly from beginning to end we don’t really know who she is. What is her family name? Where is her father? What’s her mother’s name? What’s her favorite dish? What is the name of the housing project where she lives? A black girl coming of age without a hair routine scene. What? Who does her hair? Is she of Malian descent? Guinean? She loves soccer. Who is her favorite player? What is her favorite team? Details make characters more real and human. We don’t know much about Marieme or her friends. My favorite scene in the film occurs at the hotel room when the girls are laughing after finding out the real name of Lady, the group’s leader. It’s one of the rare moments when we have access to background information about the characters. For a moment they have flesh, and are relieved from the film’s treatment of them as abstract figures, pawns to be moved from scene to scene by the unimaginative hand of the script.
What makes Precious such an idiosyncratic and unforgettable character is the fact that the film’s director, Lee Daniels, doesn't just rely on depicting her social condition as a poor, sexually abused black girl. Daniels seems to understand that sociology isn't enough and that one must also delve into the character’s dreams, desires and fantasies —as uncomfortable and corny they may be —in order to document a multi-dimensional reality. We are close to Precious and we remember her because we were close to the texture of her dreams. We've had access to her intense inner life which is her own and no else’s.
In Sciamma’s film there is a constant battle between the director’s desire to fictionalize and fantasize (which gives us the best scenes) and her desire to document, to be realistic and authentic, which trumps the other impulse and gives us the clichéd, rehashed tropes, images and dialogue. The greatest scenes are those where the director stops controlling the way the characters talk, lets the camera roll and observes the actresses improvising, so that the characters come to life as they interact with each other. These girls who are unable to live their girlhood publicly (because men! because society!) take refuge in a hotel room to drink, sing loudly to Rihanna and talk. The most radical move would have been to stay in that hotel room. I would watch a 3-hour movie that was a succession of static shots showing black girls talking shit, drinking, sleeping, and talking again until exhaustion. There is so much to explore, so much to say and imagine. It would be vertiginous and formally daring.
I do believe that only a black woman can direct this film, because it requires a certain empathy and therefore knowledge, which most people don’t have when it comes to telling stories about black women. Empathy demands patience, a listening ear and attentive eye. Though I was really moved by Sciamma’s desire to center the lives of black girls because she had also observed the violent absence of black female characters in French cinema, Girlhood is not enough.
I'll say that the coverage of Girlhood at Cannes and before it was released in France provided some CFBG moments from the four actresses themselves. Four black girls at the Cannes Festival having the time of their lives. A film I’d watch. But I guess until the carefree black girl imaginary reaches our cinema screens, I’ll keep looking for it in other places: in YouTube tutorials, reblogs, uncapitalized text posts, tweets, lyrics, Pinterest boards, decontextualized gif sets, screenshot etc., etc.
Girlhood was screened at The Directors' Fortnight during the 2014 Cannes Festival and was released in France on October 22nd.