GIRLS N THE HOOD
God is present in the estates the Church talks about reaching; unlike his followers, he never left these spaces.
It is to be seen whether the furore over the lack of black actors among the Oscar nominees for 2016 will make a difference next time round. Only five black actors have won leading role awards in 87 years, a proportion which, even allowing for the absence of civil rights prior to 1964, is a staggering imbalance, suggesting that big roles are not being shared around equitably. This contrasts markedly with the penetration of the contemporary music scene by black artists.
How refreshing it is on several levels, then, to watch the French film Girlhood. This is a story which eschews the philosophical abstraction beloved of many French directors and that earths itself in the gritty realism of life in the banlieues, the run-down, high-rise suburbs which ring the Parisian centre visitors are more familiar with and which are home to France’s most deprived immigrant communities. Most bracing of all, Girlhood’’s lead actors are young, black, female and sourced from the banlieues rather than the predominantly white drama schools of the capital.
The banlieues are largely not places people visit unless they live there; there is a practical social and – one might argue, racial – apartheid in place which only fosters misunderstanding, fear and resentment between communities. If the banlieues feature in TV news or drama, they are places of drug busts and Islamic extremism, leading to unhealthy stereotyping of all their residents. Girlhood pierces this cynicism and also holds Hollywood to account: white people are incidental to the plot and hardly speak.
There is no fantasy representation of life: there are drugs, fights, knives and bullying and the open spaces seem to belong to bored and disaffected gangs, but there is also joy in these young women as they deepen their friendships and hope as they explore the limited opportunities in front of them. Even at the end of the film, when it appears options have closed off for the main character, Marieme (played by Karidja Toure) makes a decisive move off camera. There are no heroes, only flawed people trying to negotiate the life afforded to them and the film rattles along with such raw intensity that it feels as real as life itself.
It is easy to be complacent when looking at the particular challenge posed to French policy makers by the banlieues when both Britain and the United States face acute problems of integration among many of their own communities. Britain’s estates have been abandoned by most who can afford to and the assumed default setting of all home buyers is that they will find the nicest place they can to live in. As people remove themselves from the vicinity of some of the harder estates, the public becomes more likely to caricature or demonise what is left behind: people with similar loves, fears and aspirations to their own.
The Church has struggled as much as other institutions and community activists in its engagement with the nation’s run-down estates. Few of its members live there, reducing its credibility as a body and increasing the sense that mission and service are ‘done’ to an estate rather than ‘within’ it. The truth is that God is present in Jesus Christ in the places the Church talks about reaching; unlike his followers, he never left these spaces. The failure to see this is similar to an old Victorian assumption about mission: that you take God to the people rather than being with the people, watching how God is already at work and building on that so each side can know God better.
Girlhood does not name God; there is no indication that he or his Church has a role to play in the lives of its protagonists but the film reminds incurious people of the similarity of human aspiration in an era where the stranger is perceived not as a means of God reaching out to us but as a threat to be contained.
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