Céline Sciamma’s “Girlhood” will be distributed in the US by Strand Releasing, likely in early 2015. ESTELLE HANANIA/ PYRAMIDE DISTRIBUTION
You see them when you live in Paris, these small groups of black teenage girls who hang out near Châtelet or Les Halles, an area of the city with an enormous decrepit shopping center that smells of piss and bleach.
They move in packs, jostling and laughing. Picking victims of all races to heckle or scare, turn the tables for once. Everybody is a little afraid of them. God knows I am. They’re the same girls who harassed me in high school. My sister was their white equivalent — getting in girl fights and threatening to beat me up.
At the same time, they draw the eye. They’re larger than life, practically glowing with beauty and rage and suppressed violence. I was happy when I found that Céline Sciamma (“Tomboy,” “Waterlilies”) actually made a film about them. I saw “Bande de filles” (literally translated as “Girl Gang” and released in English as “Girlhood”) this summer at a festival in Paris and was engaged from the first mysterious scene where we watch two teams playing American-style football with all its brutality and grace. You only realize they’re women when they pull off their helmets.
Afterwards, we see the girls walk back home through a gauntlet of darkness and trash and groups of loitering men. They shrink with each step. By the time they peel off one by one to enter their apartment blocks and face their own domestic horrors, they are timid and small. The last is Marieme, a 16-year-old who hooks up with three other girls when it’s clear she’s not going to be able to escape the projects.
We’re not sure how much is an act, or playacting. They are teenagers after all, and their moods are mercurial. They take as much childlike pleasure in their friendship as they do in invoking violence, and we also get a few wistful moments when they retreat to a cheap hotel room with their shoplifting booty to hang out and dance to Rihanna.
I saw it in previews with an audience that was maybe 75-percent white. The white people were a little tense. Especially when a white salesgirl got intimidated and harassed by the gang. But every now and then you’d hear these little snickers from the people of color, or sighs of recognition, particularly from black women.
Last week I read an article in Slate (French) by Charlotte Pudlowski called, “Being Invisible as a Black Woman in France.” She described how few images of black women there were in politics and culture, and hailed “Girl Gang” as the first major film in France with a serious budget and professional cinematographers to feature a story with all black female leads.
“This absence of models is an absence of possible dreams, is an absence of choices and an absence of tools,” Pudlowski wrote. Especially when you’re seen as foreign, as stupid, as eating weird food. Almost every black woman she interviewed for the article looked to the US for images of black intelligence, beauty, possibility. They embraced Toni Morrison, “The Cosby Show,” even Whoopi Goldberg in “Jumping Jack Flash” because this little black computer geek was the hero!
And most of their responses to “Girl Gang” were positive, though a few wished it hadn’t been set in the slums. Still, as one person posted, “Even if it’s not really your world, your city, your job, you still recognize yourself as a black woman, and you turn to your friend and you understand that it’s you up there on the screen.”
I was disappointed this morning on Facebook to read comments from the usual French leftists casually trashing the film in yet another febrile display of white anxiety and political correctness: “I haven’t seen it but…” The blah blah blah boiled down to, “Who does she think she is, a white Parisian lesbian making a film about young black women from the ghetto?” Or “Creating the wrong impression is worse than none.” It is alternately too stereotypical and too sociological. Because of course black filmmakers like Spike Lee never set their work in poor neighborhoods and never try to explain anything. Nope, pure art for them.
I don’t understand the Left. Not in France, or here either. We hate the stereotypes of the “good” blacks as much as the “bad” ones, and when we get complicated images, we hate them, too. We especially censor any suggestion that these girls emerge from households where black men may wield an arsenal of weapons from humiliation to their fists to keep their female relatives in line.
Erase that, you miss how remarkable it is any time these young black women try to explore their own power, even if it means standing outside the schools and shaking down other students, entertaining themselves with shoplifting, staking out territory, and getting in fights with other girl gangs to protect their honor, which may not shine too brightly, but still endures.
Strand Releasing has US distribution rights to “Girlhood” and hopes for an early 2015 theatrical release. Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” published earlier this year by the University of Minnesota Press.