Girlhood: just add a glimmer of hope

There is a scene in Girlhood in which Marieme/Vic, the main protagonist of the film, played by the beautifully enigmatic Karidja Touré, dances joyfully with her three friends to Rihanna’s Diamonds. Symbolising the comradery between these young girls, it is also a rarity: it is not often that four black people, let alone women, are the stars and not the sidekicks in a film.

Directed by Céline Sciamma (of Tomboy and Water Lilies), Girlhood is a feminist love story, a tale of the solidarity forged between four young girls: Vic (initially introduced as Marieme), Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Marietou Touré). It focuses on the life of Marieme, a young black Parisian girl, living through violence at home and a lack of options at school.

Belonging to the group of girls gives Vic a sense of purpose, identity and support where this is sorely lacking

The film begins with Marieme desperately pleading with her (white) teacher to be allowed to retake her school year. Because she has failed her class more than once, the only option available to her is to take up vocational training, which she refuses. This proves to be a pivotal moment as it’s when Marieme meets three other girls and gets her new name, Vic for “Victory”. She begins the film as an awkward young girl, struggling to survive violence at home from her brother, and her new ‘gang’ (the film’s original French title is Bande de filles, literally translating as “girl gang”) becomes a catalyst for change.

On the face of it, this is a grim tale of gangs. There are moments of violence in the film that leave the audience gasping. When Vic has a fight with a girl from an opposing gang, the victor is to leave the defeated girl in just her underwear. In this instance, Vic has come with a pen knife and she cuts off the girl’s bra. The video goes online and the girl’s humiliation is compounded.

Through being part of the group, Vic has found a substitute family, an antidote to her home life where she has to endure her brother’s violence. The girls give her a sense of purpose, identity and support where this is sorely lacking. Reflecting the reality, perhaps, of why many young people may join gangs, this points to the failings of society where young people are forced into such situations.

The film is beautifully shot by Crystel Fournier, a cinematographer who collaborated with Sciamma on her previous films, in the sparse and stark setting of the most deprived parts of Paris. The crescendo of the music does well to accentuate the peaks of the story. But perhaps most reflective of Vic’s journey are the changes to her hair and clothes: going from a young girl with long braids, to the straight weave she dons when she is with the gang, to her peroxide blonde wig when she is dealing drugs and then to her very short braids and baggy clothes in the end. It is a remarkably arresting transformation to watch and Karidja Touré does it with aplomb. It is even more startling to realise that she, like the other actors, is entirely inexperienced and was selected through street casting.

There has been some criticism levelled at Céline Sciamma, as she depicts the lives of young black teenagers through the eyes of a middle-class, financially stable and professionally accomplished white woman. Certainly, there are many stereotypes of young black people involved in gangs in the film that I am uncomfortable with myself. And perhaps it is what an outsider would perceive the reality of black teenage life to be.

The film would benefit from a diversity of characters’ experiences and a glimmer of hope

The stars of the film have defended it and, while they come from diverse backgrounds, agree that there are parts in the film that reflect the reality for young black Parisians. This can be seen when Vic is unsupported by her teacher, steadfast in opposing her wishes to repeat the year and work towards her baccalauréat. These low expectations are a reality as long as institutionalised racism exists.

The violence inflicted on women is also well reflected both in Vic’s home life and the low-level harassment she experiences when going home on the estate. Her private space is repeatedly violated through casual sexism.

Some of those stereotypes of young black people could have been addressed in Girlhood by showing diverse experiences and including characters with different opportunities. However, by saying this, I am as a reviewer perhaps projecting what I think reality should be, when such idealism is not the point of the art of cinema; an artist reflects on a slice of life and not the breadth of all experiences, which in turn can be limiting and open to criticism.

Girlhood has been keenly celebrated, which is to be applauded, as it gives a focus to the experiences of a community often marginalised and hidden. And it does celebrate these young girls: their beauty, their clothes, their solidarity, their dynamism and their humour. The film would benefit from a diversity of characters’ experiences and a glimmer of hope, when the stories of young black girls could be not just about struggling to survive, but being able to achieve and flourish.

Girlhood opens in cinemas nationwide on 8 May.

Read our interview with Céline Sciamma.

All pictures courtesy of STUDIOCANAL.

First picture is showing four young black women in a smart room with low light, laughing and hugging each other. They all have long hair and wear party dresses.

Second picture is of two young black women, Lady (Assa Sylla) and Marieme/Vic (Karidja Touré). They are outside, both have long hair and the woman on the right is wearing a golden pendant that reads ‘Vic”.

Third picture is of two young black women, Karidja Touré as Marieme/Vic and Simina Soumaré as Bébé, sitting opposite each other on a commuter train with yellow interior. They hold each others’ hands and look at each other seemingly worried.

Huma Munshi is a writer and poet. She writes for Media Diversified and Open Democracy and has also been published in The Guardian. She is particularly interested in representations of race, gender and disability on screen