The Netflix film and a handful of other recent titles movingly explore what it means to come of age at the crossroads of racism and sexism.
By Salamishah Tillet
The French coming-of-age movie “Cuties,” about a Senegalese Muslim girl who joins a hip-hop troupe, was being celebrated and censored even before its world premiere.
In January, its first-time filmmaker, Maïmouna Doucouré, won a directing award at Sundance. Then, in August, Netflix took the film’s nuanced exploration of the sexualization of young girls and doubled down, releasing an ill-advised publicity image of tween girls puckering their lips for the camera. In response, the hashtag #CancelNetflix went viral. At the same time, several Republican lawmakers called for the film to be banned, with Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, even asking the Department of Justice to open a child-pornography investigation into Netflix and the filmmakers.
The controversy, however, has obscured the more complicated realities of gender, race and religion that the film explores as a young immigrant, 11-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf, 14), struggles to define herself in her traditional household and in a social-media-driven society that both rewards and penalizes hypersexualized adolescent girls.
The backlash to the film seems mainly an American phenomenon. There has been no significant pushback in France, where the film was shot and set. What concerns me is that the criticism seems misplaced and misinformed when we put “Cuties” in conversation with a recent group of girlhood movies by Black female filmmakers here in the United States. The nonfiction “A Love Song for Latasha,” the short “Pillars,” and the features “Miss Juneteenth” and “Selah and the Spades” put the adultification, overdisciplining and vulnerability of African-American girls front and center, and by doing so paint a complicated portrait of what it means to come of age at the crossroads of American racism and sexism.
“A Love Song for Latasha” (Netflix) is Sophia Nahli Allison’s 20-minute documentary about Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old Black girl who was buying orange juice when she was killed by a 51-year-old Korean grocer, Soon Ja Du, in Los Angeles in 1991. Allison’s experimental style, lush palette, fast-paced editing and tender close-ups on Latasha’s cousins and friends, all now 40-something Black women like me, recreate the loss of Latasha’s innocence. Not in terms of legal guilt: Though Du claimed that Latasha intended to steal a $1.79 carton of orange juice, the actual camera footage used at the trial as well as eyewitness accounts revealed that Latasha had $2 in her hand before Du shot her.
Allison never features that footage. Instead, she has a far more ambitious goal: By recalling Latasha as a generous straight-A student who dreamed of being a lawyer and using re-enactments and dreamlike sequences, she revels in the richness of Latasha’s life. In this way, Allison also reveals the brutal reality of Latasha’s killing and remembers how her death factored into the Los Angeles riots in 1991.
Though strained mother-daughter dynamics are the surface issues in Tayarisha Poe’s “Selah and the Spades,” Channing Godfrey Peoples’s “Miss Juneteenth” and Haley Elizabeth Anderson’s short “Pillars,” Black girls’ social and sexual vulnerabilities are actually their main themes.
The stylized teen drama “Selah and the Spades” (available on Amazon Prime) takes place at Haldwell, a Pennsylvania boarding school, where Selah (Lovie Simone) sits atop an interracial pecking order as the head of a predominantly African-American clique, the Spades. Though Selah’s economic status insulates her from some forms of discrimination that exist beyond her elite campus, her standing is precarious thanks to her protégées’ efforts to undermine her authority and her mother’s continual disapproval, both of which push her to depression and even suicidal ideation.
“Miss Juneteenth” (available on major platforms) spotlights intergenerational and internecine conflicts even more directly by focusing on the differences between the college dropout Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), who once held the crown that gives the film its title, and her 15-year-old daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). At first, these struggles appear to be about winning the scholarship pageant so Kai can attend a historically Black college or university of her choice. But the film deftly focuses on how gender can be more limiting for Black girls like Kai who rebel against more the conservative notions of femininity upon which the Miss Juneteenth competition prides itself.
In “Pillars,” which I saw at the New Negress Film Society’s Black Women’s Film Conference, Amber (Kadence King), who is not yet a teenager, also pushes back against gender stereotypes by boxing with her temperamental father and challenging the strict doctrine of her religious mother. Anderson takes her character’s developing sexuality seriously by having Amber develop a crush on a boy with whom she attends church, only to have an older Black girl teach Amber how to kiss in the church’s bathroom.
Infused in all these films is an optimism that Black girls can overcome their oppressive environments. But rather than asking them to be overly resilient and navigate these pressures on their own, the films focus on community and feature family members or friends who accept the characters’ nonconformity in the face of racial and gender stereotypes imposed on them, sometimes in their homes and more often in the outside world.
Which brings us back to “Cuties.” Near the end of the film, Doucouré tricks the audience. Onstage, we see Amy and her three friends wearing tight black boy shorts and sequin turquoise crop tops while twerking and gyrating. At first, the live crowd cheers, then it jeers. Stand-ins for those of us streaming the film, their responses force us to acknowledge our own complicity in the girls’ objectification. Even more troubling, the movie reveals how easily the lines between girl empowerment and sexual exploitation can be taken advantage of and blurred.
But Amy, too, is upset and abandons her crew before the competition is over. Instead, she ends up being consoled by her mother and decides to dress in a red long-sleeve T-shirt and jeans to a formal family occasion, an act that, for the first time in the movie, feels all her own. Her journey to self does not feel pornographic or victimizing, but rather, puts her on a path to self-definition and freedom that her mother, her peers and, most tragically in the real world, Latasha Harlins, never had.
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