Sciamma’s Girlhood (following Tomboy and Water Lilies) is an unforgettable piece of cinema, gripping from start to finish. The story gives an honest portrayal of the lives of young, working class, black women growing up in a deprived area of France. The film focuses on the struggle of 16 year old protagonist Marieme (Karidja Touré) after she is refused the opportunity to progress into further education. She lives on an estate in a neighbourhood dominated by men. She is neglected by her mother, who is herself oppressed and exploited, and is watched over and judged by her controlling older brother.
Faced with all this, Marieme joins a gang of rebellious girls facing similar problems and begins to flourish into an assertive character with huge loyalty to her new friends. She adopts a new name Vic (short for Victory). This reflects a different side of her personality. While Marieme is the girl who keeps to herself, frustrated inside, loyal to her family, held back by her position in society, Vic is the fighter, the transition from girl to woman. As Vic she is growing into a woman who knows what she wants and learns to say no.
Marieme/Vic is an extremely likeable character, level-headed and strong yet vulnerable and sensitive at the same time. We follow her journey and root for her in her battle for freedom from the constraints of an unequal society. Very rarely do audiences encounter a film which investigates the lives of black, female or working class characters without making a mockery out of them or keeping them in secondary roles. Girlhood breaks this mould. It gives such characters depth and respects them by giving them stories which ordinary people can relate to and engage with. Marieme is never portrayed as a victim. As the story unfolds we see her constantly challenging people and situations that stand in her way. This is carried through to the end of the film, which is left ambiguous.
We are not sure what she is going to do next, but we know whatever it is, she is doing it for herself. The character is inspiring, especially for young women. It is the first time on the big screen I have seen a poor black woman as a protagonist who is so self-assured. This film provides a strong message and an object lesson for filmmakers everywhere who want to depict something raw and new. It also exposes the realities of a section of French society that isn’t talked about enough.
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