We Need More Coming-of-Age Films about Young Black Women
‘cause what we got is not enough
There’s an urgency to see more young black women at the centre of coming of age films. In this battle for representation, we not only have to tackle the capitalist structure that prioritizes white narratives, but we also have to address the fact that for young black women, coming of age experiences are not monolithic -- and these stories ought to be directed by black women, duh. Who else could talk about the experience of being a black queer woman better than a black queer director? Take Anaiis Cisco, who’s currently working on a film that focuses on a 20-something black woman’s sexual exploration with another woman. Cisco knows the way the industry works and says she’s fully aware that, “blackness is trending, queerness is trending and if you’re a white woman trying to get funding, you’re more likely to get it than my black ass.”
My eagerness to see more young women like me “finding themselves” began with my solo marathon of Noah Baumbach films. His repetitive depictions of the misunderstood, lowkey cool, confused and sometimes-creative loner characters are what drew me in; I felt like I was one of them. Baumbach introduced me to Frances, the odd wannabe dancer from Frances Ha, Tracy, the university freshman and aspiring writer struggling to fit in from Mistress America, and Grover, the writer navigating life post-graduation from Kicking and Screaming. His characters’ biggest woes are often how to navigate university or how to grow the fuck up. Thankfully, the closest I’ve ever come to finding black characters like that is with Lionel from Dear White People or Nola Darling (also related to her confident sexuality) in She’s Gotta Have It. And while that’s great and all, it’s not enough, especially since these are stories by black men.
In comparison to white coming of age films, what is available as representation of black women is often a story about a young girl from the hood, who might be sexually abused or lives with a neglectful mother or an absent father. Malika Imhotep, a black queer scholar and artist noted, “We see [black girls] perform how they’ve been prematurely made into women, but we don’t get to see them stumbling through adolescence or being a teenager in ways that aren’t about criminality, violence and poverty.”
In Just Another Girl on The I.R.T, writer, director and producer Leslie Harris explores adolescent sexuality, academic ambition, and the realities of teen pregnancy. In Crooklyn, Spike Lee shows the strong-willed spirit of a young girl who must become the matriarch of a home too soon. While we can be grateful for these beautiful and relevant narratives, these aren’t the only realities for black women.
In fact, these are such common depictions of blackness that white people don’t know how to react when they learn we didn’t all grow up that way. Author Roxane Gay talks about her experience attending the elite boarding school, Exeter, in Hunger, writing, “[The students] assumed all black students came from impoverished backgrounds and lived in the inner city,” and that’s no surprise considering repetitive and damaging narratives about blackness. If we continue to exclusively sell these images to ourselves and to the general public, we block out the opportunity to see our individualized representations and cut off our imagination for another reality, one that is instead aspirational.
In order to achieve this, we need to see more by black female directors. And while we are entering a new phase of seeing black women on or behind the screen with Issa Rae and Ava DuVernay on the block, that’s not enough. Our stories don’t have to be told through major lenses, like Hollywood and Netflix. Since Hollywood would rather do nothing about representation until there’s social media outcry and Netflix would rather support trash white propaganda like The Titan (which promotes white men being the only survivor of a forced evolution) and critically acclaimed shows like The End of the F***ing World (which glorifies a young white man’s psychopathic cravings to kill) independent filmmaking is where it’s at.
We can create our own spaces to appreciate and circulate our own content. That’s actually how I learned about Anaiis Cisco and Malika Imhotep. Black Aesthetic is a film series that showcases black films to be watched by black people. Although I didn’t attend the event in California, I received a book from the initiative that consisted of essays and scripts (Cisco and Imhotep contributed) that focused on black women in film. It took me on a Wikipedia deep dive that started with Drylongso (Cauleen Smith), somehow lead me to School Daze (Spike Lee) and ended with my desperate hunt for Julie Dash’s Illusions. When I was done, the thesis for this article was complete. I spoke with Imhotep about the importance of self-representation and said I wanted to see black female creatives. Imhotep said she wanted to see “stories about southern black girls that are not about victimhood. More representations of joy, exploration of black girls’ desire, in ways that aren’t always marred by sexual violence, [including] queer desire.” With Cisco I talked about blaxploitation and the LA Rebellion (a political cinematic movement lead by black filmmakers that challenged Hollywood cinema) and how this movement continues to inspire her and other independent filmmakers to create narratives that ignite the black imagination. Talking with Imhotep and Cisco reminded me that if we want to see diverse depictions of black girls growing up, black women ought to create them or support the women that do. My small part in putting those words into action is manifested through this article; create what I know, and what I know is we need more coming of age films about young black women.