Over the last few months, I’ve read articles, tweets, threads, and online debates about the lack of coming of age films about Black girls. These sentiments both enrage and fascinate me because they reveal much larger disparities in the funding, distribution, marketing, and overall support that our films receive, in comparison to a Lady Bird, or a Booksmart. In the wake of the latter, the sentiments have only gotten louder. Folks want to see Black girls and Black teens laughing, having fun, messing up, doing crazy things, and not burdened by the “trauma” of poverty, survival, or hopelessness. I do too. But, these films have been made and continue to be made. Some folks just don’t know about them.
Limited funding, marketing, publicity, and distribution opportunities fuel this lack of visibility. Many people find out about films through targeted marketing and publicity campaigns: online ads, celebrity/influencer endorsements, commercials, and press. If you make a feature film and receive little to no marketing, there’s a chance that many people won’t know about your film. Or, if you make a feature film and are unable to get the distribution that will help your film reach its audience, it becomes much harder for the audience to see it. Unfortunately, many coming of age films directed by Black women about Black girls face this reality. Why? I could write a whole dissertation on this topic, but a glance at the history (and the more recent state of) American cinema reveals a medium rife with toxic stereotypes of Black women, Black girls, and many non-white people. Some of the most celebrated films thrived on these problematic portrayals, or on the complete erasure of Black people. And even today, women filmmakers still fight to tell their own stories and receive the appropriate budgets and financing to do so. So, where’s the space for free Black girls that exist outside of the white imagination? Where’s the space for Black joy?
Black joy, historically, has not been seen as profitable—meaning, the Black joy that emanates from real, deep places, not from caricature or stereotype. Black joy in the sense of Black girls laughing, riding a bike, braiding their hair, reading a comic book, and falling in love. But Black joy can also exist alongside pain, discomfort, confusion, or distress. And I don’t think one necessarily negates the other. We are not here to sanitize the experiences of teenagers. As artists, we should strive to represent the truth and complexity of their lives or any life that we render onscreen. Being a teenager is inherently traumatic. I don’t know many people who got through adolescence unscathed. I still remember sitting in a Subway in Richmond, California when a boy I’d developed deep feelings for told me he had a girlfriend shortly after we’d been to prom together. It was earth-shattering for me. It was my first heartbreak and I can still recall the pain of that experience very clearly. Or the time an intense, fiery argument with a best friend left me in tears and shaken. I remember it was raining, and I felt like I’d lost a part of myself.
These experiences were traumatic in the sense that they forced me to see the world around me in new, painful ways. They colored my perception of certain experiences. I knew the feeling, the taste, the pain of loss. They had nothing to do with poverty or survival, but if they had, would that make them any less valid in this discussion? In our attempt to build this new wave of coming of age films, it seems we may want to erase certain lives from the canon. I have no problem watching a coming of age film that deals with poverty or economic turmoil as a circumstance in a teen’s life because every day I witness people around me living in tent cities on sidewalks across Los Angeles and Oakland. Whole families live there. I see people being priced out of their neighborhoods and having to move in with family members. The teenage experience is not limited to that which we can easily escape into for fun. The degrees of joy, pain, trauma, triumph, and hope vary—and it’s up to us to honor these stories.
I tried to capture a mix of Black girl joy and pain in my debut feature film Jinn, about a Black girl whose world is changed when her mother converts to Islam, leading her on an inevitable journey of self-discovery and first love. My film was released late last year. There was very little marketing for it, but the love and reception we’ve received has been immensely gratifying. There are many other Black women writer/directors who’ve made recent feature films that explore the lives of complicated Black girls but have not yet been recognized on a larger, mainstream scale for their work. These films include: Solace directed by Tchaiko Omawale, Selah and The Spades directed by Tayarisha Poe, Jezebel directed by Numa Perrier, Premature directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green and co-written by Zora Howard, A Love Song for Latasha directed by Sophia Nahli Allison and an upcoming film Paper Chase directed by Angela Tucker. Past coming of age films centering Black girls include Crooklyn directed by Spike Lee, Love & Basketball directed by Gina Prince Bythewood, Just Another Girl on the IRT directed by Leslie Harris, Yelling to The Sky directed by Victoria Mahoney, Eve’s Bayou directed by Kasi Lemmons and Pariah directed by Dee Rees, among many others. These films range in subject-matter and style, exploring themes of sexuality, identity, eating disorders, boarding school experiences, first love, religion, sex work, death, house parties, college, sports, family relationships, and fun. For the purposes of this article, I am mainly highlighting work by Black women-identifying writer/directors. We know our stories best.
As you’ll notice, some of the films mentioned above aren’t available in theaters or on streaming platforms yet. Some of them are still screening at film festivals, or haven’t secured distribution. If that’s the case, find out which festival they are screening at next, and support. Look them up, see when they’re screening in your city, request them, and in some cases, demand them online. Show them the same love as Creed 2, Sorry To Bother You, The Hate You Give, Girls Trip, and Booksmart. If they don’t have distribution yet, think about why that is. Think about how we as an informed audience can fight back and make sure our stories are seen and told.
So, while there are reasons these films have gone unnoticed, when we make definitive statements about the total lack of coming of age films about Black girls, we might actually aid in the erasure of the narratives that do exist, and that will exist. We live in a time where our access to information, to history, and context is one click away. We cannot afford to assume that because we didn’t see a commercial or a billboard for a film, that it doesn’t exist. We cannot afford to be clueless about the art that exists for us, and by us. Filmmakers put their lives on the line to make these films. Sometimes we just have to seek them out.
In many ways, the erasure of our narratives and of the continuing fight to make them actually mirrors the erasure of Black girls in larger society. We cannot be seen if we don’t first see ourselves. If you know of a recent coming of age feature film about a Black girl and/or teenager that’s being made or has been released, drop the name in the comments or on Twitter.
Nijla Mu’min is an award-winning screenwriter and director from the East Bay Area. Her debut feature film Jinn, won the Grand Jury Award for Screenwriting at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival, and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. She recently wrote for the upcoming Apple series, “Swagger” and is developing her second feature film. She is a 2019 Shadow And Act RISING Award winner.