After gaining such critical acclaim, it may be churlish to strongly critique Celine Sciamma’s efforts, but, watching Girlhood it didn’t take long for me to feel discomfort with the shallow imagery of this film, masked behind the frame of an authentic perspective of a young black African girl’s tough life in the suburbs of Paris. It is safe to say I haven’t jumped on the packed, and very loud, award train of film circuits we’ve been hearing lately. Girlhood follows the struggle of Marieme at, an impressionable age of, sixteen as she struggles to discover her identity in a world that sees her as a hyper-sexualised and docile statue or a butch girl with moral standards. Marieme is undecided and so moves fleetingly between these lines, trying to navigate within a suffocating realm that aggrandises female sexuality yet callously targets any form of female agency.
Sciamma unveils the destructive binaries that surround Marieme, isolating her profoundly. From mothering her younger siblings (of course her mother works the night shift) to the enigmatic opening scene of rowdy black girls, Marieme is in constant battle to emerge with or without a moral compass. At school she is held back from progressing to the next stage, after that she conveniently runs into a group of cool girls. Lady, Adiatou and Fily. Drawn to their lifestyle and confidence, they provide a perfect coping mechanism for her void so she joins them.
On the surface, Marieme’s new friends are lazy, loud, rude and shallow who spend days robbing fellow students to explore the fashion stores of Paris. Yet although the materialism of society is a valid conversation that needs attention, Sciamma’s lens seems to place the blame on young girls as opposed to the broader culture of society that systematically profits from consumerism at the cost of the most vulnerable. The problem is human weaknesses are projected in a way that merely preserves stereotypes of young black women, as leeches on Europe’s urban surface. In one scene, entering a clothes shop, Marieme and her ‘gang arouse instinctual suspicion from the shop assistant; the girls react in outrage; it underscores the constant exclusion from the fabric of society that Marieme and her friends are conditioned under. But such astute observation is not enough to save this film from its superficiality. The young actors exhibit great charisma but that is cold comfort; there are some really funny scenes, which one suspects are improvised, depicting the daily rituals of Marieme and her friends; however if the claim is to engage with the culture and conditions of a minority community, Sciamma might have been more effective making a documentary.
French cinema has had a long history of ethnographic films that tended to reveal yet also direct the voices of Africans historically silenced.
In Jean Rouch’s much-celebrated Chronicle of a Summer (Rouch, 1960) his attempts at truth finding propels him to use journalistic techniques to shape a post-colonial discussion with African students. In a pivotal scene, Rouch’s presence in directing a conversation is a realistic and honest depiction of filmmaking that does not shield the authoritarian negotiations that have to take place. However by presenting her picture as a source of truth, Sciamma is unable to present an honest reflection of the flaws in creating a story around a different culture, removed from personal experience.
To her credit, Sciamma attempts to understand the deep-rooted anxieties about hair within black communities; Her father cuts off her weave as punishment, speaking volumes on society’s detrimental Eurocentric standards of beauty that give her power, but only as a disguise for her alienation; many women might recognise the quiet shell of a person Lady succumbs to upon this humiliation. Marieme and the others discuss Lady’s fate in fleeting remarks, which subtly unveils the pain of the occurrence. However what concerns me here is the extent of ‘othering’ that exists in the scene. I recognise the power that derives from the striking subtlety of its dialogue, but it feels rather forced in nature. Moreover, Girlhood perpetuates the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype as demonstrated during an intense fight scene. The camera depicts a circular motion of screaming young women with smartphones as they cheer on the violent beating between Marieme and her peer. Marieme emerges as a dominant force where she ceremoniously defeats her counterpart that I find to be particularly problematic. This scene simply depicts black girls as exhibiting animalistic tendencies, holding judgment on a community that are lacking any form of moral conviction. Not enough is invested on the internalised vulnerabilities of these characters or on the living conditions of these communities, instead narrowly placing blame on parents revealing the detrimental limitations of this picture. The awful use of off-screen sounds throughout the film further attempts to indiscreetly familiarise the girls with a broader audience, which instead disorientates the audience from the essence of Marieme’s struggle. Consequently these young women become a mere subject of vigorous laughter from the audience, during a depressingly petty theft of dresses.
For a film that champions itself as a force for black girls, it fails to give us enough of the deep-rooted identity and character of she who moulded Marieme. The black mother. An uncomfortably empty relationship is presented to us, the missing matriarch, we’re invited to judge, and it seems, very unfavourably. She works harsh hours and is notably absent for Marieme’s internal breakdown, as well as the violent brutish behaviour of her son that compromises the safety of her daughters. Girlhood misses an opportunity to explore this dysfunctional relationship as a means to tap into the troubled psyche of Sciamma’s heroine. Perhaps Girlhood’s fatal mistake is positioning itself as an authentic voice removed from judgement, while rather narrowly condemning flawed parenting without the necessary discussions on the socio-economic environment that sparks these tense family dynamics.
As a result, Girlhood cannot really be about or for the young black woman, but rather a pleasant, voyeuristic platform for those beyond the black community to envision distant worlds within a safe space.
I have decided if you want to get through Girlhood, with your sanity intact then you will benefit from differentiating what Girlhood is from what Girlhood wants to be. If you want to merely see diversity then this is more up your street. But if you are like me, cynical, you may crave something that stems from the directorial eye of a true experience needed to give stories like Marieme’s the justice they deserve. This film is useful in observing the different perceptions of one black girl’s troubled journey. Nevertheless, whichever angle the camera is positioned, this story could have gone further in developing wider societal discussions rather than upholding stereotypes. Sciamma creates a deeply self-aware exposure of a young black girl that ironically unveils the vast limitations of this identity in France. I appreciate Sciamma’s efforts to re-shuffle the rigid binaries of race in France, although notably not in filmmaking. Hopefully her efforts will encourage a wider interest in giving black voices the appropriate platform and space to echo honest visions.