Girlhood (2014): The Issues of Being a Black Girl in France

From left to right: Marietou Toure as Fily; Lindsay Karamoh as Adiatou; Karidja Touré as Marieme and Assa Sylla as Lady in Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014).

The African American author James Baldwin once said that moving from America to France wasn’t a matter of choice, he just felt like leaving a country which didn’t accept people of his color. The white french bourgeoisie would just leave him alone unlike the American ruling class. That was in the middle of the 20th century. Although minorities have spoken more and more about their issues, people of color in France are still subordinated as they were when colonialism was existent. Most people of color live in the suburbs (banlieues) and 40% of the young people there has no job. Recently, an article from a journalist talked about the ascending class of black people in the country. It’s a good representativity, however, it’s such a small part of what they represent in France. Given that, we need to hear the other stories, to understand why it’s an article that has only a few stories to be told. Thus, the director Cécile Sciamma (she also directed released a film in 2014 about the marginalized french youth, the one that doesn’t fit the ruling class standards and faces racism, poverty, sexism and other issues that have been barely raised throughout the french cinema history.

Mariemme is a 16 year old girl and lives with 2 younger sisters and an abusive brother, once her mother is usually absent due to her job. She is also in trouble with school. She just can’t get good grades enough to get her into the next level. The thought of a future upsets her and she will find a way out of this with a girl gang, that spends their time fighting with rival gangs, shoplifting, stealing white women and dancing to pop music in expensive hotels at the end of the day. Fily, Adiatou and Lady are wild and fearless. They wear similar clothes and have smooth hair. On the other hand, Mariemme is quite shy and her scared eyes show us that she is lost and wants to be found. As she adapts to what the girls do, we don’t know what she thinks about all of this. When Lady loses a street fight and has her shirt ripped off, her father cuts her long hair as a way to represent her defeat and weakness. Mariemme then, takes up the fight and wins. The solidarity among the girls is beautiful to watch. They are honest with one another, offering support for whatever they need. Because they are black girls, media would instead prefer to sexualize them and put them against each other. But sorority is a key word to and despite the violent aspect of the characters, they are not limited to that. There are other identities to be explored here.

Karidja Touré as Marieme and Assa Sylla as Lady in Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014)

When you’re young, you feel like rebelling against something. These girls from the suburbs have serious reasons to do so. They have no perspective on their futures. In 2015, President Francois Hollande promised to end the inequality that is in the suburbs, but no action has been seen. They still live under historical conditions of segregation despite french people’s allegation that they don’t see people by their color (that’s how Baldwin felt). The right wing has grown to the extent that their belief in white racism is seen as okay. There’s also the race intolerance due to recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

Thus, when Mariemme intends to work for a rich drug dealer that promises her a future, she doesn’t think twice. The girls don’t understand it at first, but Mariemme wakes them up from the illusion they are living in. This world of stealing to live isn’t living and the path she decided to follow isn’t either. But that’s the only way she found to get way from the impoverished community she lives in. It’s an opressing job, she has to disguise herself as a boy as a matter of not being harrased. Mariemme leaves it as soon as her boss tries to kiss her. Sciamma ends her film with her protagonist returning to her house. This shows us that she has not just grown up and learned how to build her character by facing issues related to her race, class and gender but also that these issues will never be overcome if much doesn’t change.

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Larissa Oliveira

Brazilian writer, teacher and zinester. Articles related to cinematic content. I also write for https://medium.com/@womenofthebeatgeneration_