On ‘Girlhood,’ ‘Juice,’ and Depression in the Black Community

L - R: Assa Sylla as Lady, Mariétou Touré as Fily, Lindsay Karamoh as Adiatou, and Karidja Touré as Vic

GIRLHOOD, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Karidja Touré, Mariétou Touré, 2014.

Given the current climate of the movie industry – that is, the general lack of films about black people who are not servants, slaves, or sassy best friends – I’ve lately been returning to some “old” gems from my childhood. Perhaps naturally, upon reaching adulthood an instinctive nostalgia sets in, but it’s hard to deny that the ’90s was a relatively prosperous era for black film and television. The stories and representations of blackness varied on the big and small screen. Today, television fares much better when it comes to diversity and casting black people “against type.” But the fact remains in the ’90s we had The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Moesha, Martin, The Parkers, Smart Guy, Sister Sister, Cousin Skeeter, Kenan & Kel, Living Single, Family Matters, among many others; today we have Black-ish and Empire. And consider this: the most recognizable (largely because they have been “legitimized” by the Academy) black filmmakers working today – Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen, and Lee Daniels – have received such recognition for strikingly monolithic films about black oppression.

Black suffering framed as cinematic is hardly a novel business. Black and white filmmakers alike have profited from such images. But whatever the intention behind them, however objectively “good” these films turn out, few have emerged with a full, meaningful depiction of this pain – why it is, where it comes from.

Until recently, I had written Juice (1992) off as one such film: a half-painted portrait of black man-pain. Ernest R. Dickerson’s directorial debut follows four best friends – Bishop (Tupac Shakur), Rahim (Khalil Kain), Steel (Jermaine Hopkins) and Q (Omar Epps) – through the treacherous, if familiar streets of Harlem. The teenagers regularly forgo school for arcade halls, record shops, and Steel’s house while his parents are at work. A necessary ennui clouds the first half hour of Juice, and it’s the chemistry and earnest performances from the actors that keep the film engaging. When the unlikable if immensely sympathetic Bishop sees on the news that an acquaintance has been shot during a robbery, something disturbing awakens in him. Already grappling with classical notions of masculinity, he decides they should hold up a nearby corner store. At first, his idea is met with resistance, especially from Q, who would rather be DJing. But by the time he returns from a successful audition to spin records at a neighborhood nightclub, Bishop has convinced Rahim and Steel to participate in the heist. Q concedes reluctantly, but no good can come of this, and predictably the once close group of friends find themselves violently ripped apart by fear, guilt, and murder.

JUICE, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Omar Epps, Khalil Kain, 1992.

JUICE, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Omar Epps, Khalil Kain, 1992.

Of course, Juice portrays an exaggerated case, but the film this time around struck me as an apt and ever relevant commentary on depression in the black community. We don’t know a lot about Bishop except that he lives with his grandmother and his sickly father who is confined to a wheelchair. We also know that Bishop feels powerless a lot. Two scenes where he’s confronted by a local gang bookend the character’s transformation: In the first scene, his friends come to his aid and he is emboldened by their protection. In the second scene, his friends abandon him and so he resorts to a more dire approach. Violence seems to make him feel powerful. Perhaps understandably so. All of these characters seem trapped by something unspoken and indiscernible: with the exception of Q, none of them seem to hope for a better life than the aimless one they’re living now. This powerlessness, this hopelessness, is depression, which prevails in impoverished communities and is especially exacerbated by systemic racism.

The CDC recently reported black people were 4 percent more likely to report depression than their white counterparts; and considering that generally women are more likely to suffer depression than men, this means black women experience depression at a higher rate than the rest of the population, too.

GIRLHOOD

GIRLHOOD

Enter Girlhood (2014). When I first watched the film at last year’s London Film Festival, I left the theater starry-eyed. Here was the “carefree black girl” film I had been waiting for all my life. Even now, three viewings and countless think pieces later, Girlhood remains a fascinating, if ultimately conventional film. It hurts to admit this – it feels dishonest to the exuberance of my first viewing – but I think black women are so starved for images of ourselves that we don’t always question the ones we do get especially when they’re as beautifully imagined as Girlhood. 

The film tells the story of 16-year-old Vic, formerly known as Marieme (Karidja Touré), who, much like the boys of Juice, also feels stuck. She finds herself switched to the vocational track after twice failing the same year, and the future she sees before her – undoubtedly represented by her single mother who cleans hotels – seems bleak. Physically abused and constantly policed by her older brother, and often left alone to care for her younger sisters, she finds welcome reprieve in a group of lovably fiery girls: Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Mariétou Touré). Among them, Vic flourishes and her world doesn’t seem so dim after all. Unfortunately, the film loses all its energy once Vic exits this girl group, inexplicably to become a drug runner for a local dealer.

Far from radical, Girlhood resembles many “hood” and banlieu films before it. The main difference is this time around the film is populated by girls. For all director Céline Sciamma’s claims to the contrary, Girlhood is quite like Boyhood (2014): Both films assume a stance of universality. Little reference is made to the heritage of these girls, not to mention the fact that so many non-black women have co-opted the film as representative of all girls when black girlhood is a famously specific and isolating experience. In an ideal world, universality would be fine. As it stands, we live in a world where blackness is constantly erased or under threat of erasure. In a xenophobic France where immigrants are constantly demonized, Sciamma’s efforts to align these girls with a country that sees them as “other” are arguably noble. But if one has to erase blackness in order to humanize it, can we really call it a triumph?

Let me be clear: It is not a triumph; for while explicitly erasing their heritage, Sciamma’s narrative still benefits from racial stereotypes, at its most glaring when it comes to the film’s men, like Vic’s brutish older brother and the evil drug runner who preys on a hopeless Vic and leads her into a life of danger and depravity. There’s also the question of the violence–heavy-handed and contrived in its execution–that seems to dominate the girls’ lives. Fighting seems to be a casual element of their everyday comings and goings (they even get into a shouting match with another group of girls on a train station platform), and maybe there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but it feels more like something Sciamma thinks black girls do.

Objectively, Girlhood is not a bad film. if I have any problem with the movie at all, it’s that it challenges nothing. It is not the revolutionary film we all want and need it to be. On the contrary, it continues in the tradition of so many other faux liberal films before it, mimicking rather than exploring what it means to grow up black and stymied.