Photo Credit: Okayplayer
11 Modern Coming of Age Movies That Center Black Girls
The coming of age story is one rich with nostalgia and longing for simpler times. Here are 11 coming of age movies that are centered around Black girls.
Growing up, getting older, maturing — no matter how you label it, the passage of time is inevitable. Aging is a universal ritual everyone experiences, which is probably why the coming of age genre in film remains poignant for audiences of every generation. Coming of age stories act as snapshots that capture cultural nuances, themes, and specificities of generations. These films can also be symbolic in that they highlight a deeply personal and emotional — yet fleeting — moment in life where identity and self-hood are molded and defined.
Like most other areas of the film and television industry, the coming of age genre lacks the variety and range of diverse voices that reflect the realities of the world. Every time a splashy, heavily marketed coming of age story like Booksmart or Lady Bird comes on the scene, the chatter about the lack of similar stories about Black girls amplifies.
Hollywood seems to have little to no interest in funding the production for movies about Black women’s transitional period into adulthood. That doesn’t mean these stories don’t exist, it’s simply a matter of lack of access and exposure. If there isn’t a wide or limited theatrical release — and studios and production companies don’t provide adequate marketing budgets — it’s hard for audiences to know a film is even coming out let alone where they can view it.
(The rare exception to all of this is the French movie Cuties, the feature-length debut from Maïmouna Doucouré which has gotten a lot of attention about the way Netflix marketed it. The movie is now currently engulfed in a right-wing led campaign because of its sexualized portrayal of the young girls.)
To help, we have rounded up a list of 11 coming of age films centered around Black girls that can be streamed online today. What’s exciting about this list of films is that there is such a range of voices, subject matter, and character journeys that there’s a little bit of something for everyone. The coming of age story is one rich with nostalgia and longing for simpler times. Having Black women at the center of such stories adds layers of perspectives in multiple ways. From religion and sexuality to grief and regret, these films expose the emotional range of women filmmakers and the Black women they choose to tell stories about.
Director: Dee Rees
Watch on: Amazon Prime
Dee Rees’ Pariah is the feature expansion of her short film of the same name. It follows Alike (Adepero Oduye) a high-school senior learning to nurture her identity as a lesbian while keeping her true self a secret from her family. Alike’s mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) is suspicious of her daughter’s only friendship with high school drop-out Laura (Pernell Walker). In an effort to quell Laura’s influence she forces Alike to befriend a young girl from church named Bina (Aasha Davis).
At first Alike and Bina don’t get along, but as they get to know each other they realize they have more in common than they previously believed. Feelings blossom between the two, and after attending a rock band performance they have an intimate night together. It’s Alike’s first time being physical with anyone and thinks she has finally found someone who loves and accepts her. But Alike is devastated when Bina makes it clear that their interaction was just one of experimentation. The pressures from love lost and her parents’ dysfunctional marriage causes Alike to break, but she discovers that her broken past only opened up possibilities for a fulfilled future.
Director: Nijla Mumin
Watch on: Amazon Prime, iTunes
Summer (Zoe Renee) is the average girl next door in her final year of high school. And like any other senior, she is busy waiting to hear about her acceptance into college, hanging out with friends, eating pizza, and choreographing a dance for the end-of-year talent show. But her life is upended when her mother Jade (Simone Missick) converts to Islam and impels Summer to do the same. As Summer learns more about the religion, she begins to embrace her new identity as a Muslim and falls in love with a fellow classmate Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who further introduces her to the lessons and principles of Islam. But even as Summer develops a deeper understanding, she struggles to align her choices of self-expression as a dancer and woman embracing her sexuality with her new identity as a woman of the Muslim faith. Her budding relationship with Tahir also challenges them both as they try to grapple with balancing their physical desires for each other while staying true to the core principles taught to them by their parents.
After a revealing picture of Summer goes viral, and she is publicly shamed by those meant to nurture and protect her, Summer spirals into a cloud of self-doubt as she questions her purpose and dueling identities. The film’s theme — that life is about growth and new inventions — influences every character’s decision-making in this thought-provoking examination of what it means to embrace new beginnings and evolve with new teachings while also staying true to one’s individuality and personal inclinations.
Director: Wanuri Kahiu
Watch on: Amazon Prime, Kanopy
Rafiki is a colorful film set in Kenya about two daughters of rival politicians who fall in love. In the midst of dealing with her parents’ separation, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) waits for her school grades to see if she will be eligible to study nursing. But when she and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) hang out for the first time, Ziki encourages her to be a doctor instead. Ziki isn’t quite sure what her lifelong aspirations are, but the one thing she is sure about is that she doesn’t want to stay home after she completes school. She would much rather travel the world than become a good wife.
They both become quick friends and encourage each other to pursue their dreams. As they spend more time together, they begin to neglect spending time with friends and family, which Mama Atim (Muthoni Gathecha) notices. Suspicions about the nature of their relationship grow throughout their community, especially considering their fathers’ political campaigns are heating up. Their love for each other soon becomes too much to hide, and when Mama Atim and her nosy daughter out them to their intolerant community, both Kena and Ziki have to decide whether they want to be happy together or safe apart.
Director: Tchaiko Omawale
Watch on: Showtime, Hulu
Solace is a film about finding love and self-acceptance in the shadows of loss, death, and addiction. The main character Sole (Hope Olaide Wilson) is a 17-year-old artist who plans to join her professor on a trip to Sierra Leone. But when her father dies after a year of being ill, she is uprooted from her home in New York City and sent to live with her estranged grandmother Irene in Los Angeles. As she tries to acclimate herself to her new surroundings, and Irene’s overbearing religious teachings, Sole’s struggle with an eating disorder begins to spiral. In an effort to get back to New York, she enlists the help of her troubled neighbors, Jasmine and Guedado, to create a piece of protest art as her application. The unlikely group struggles to find a unified vision for the project, as all of them bring different talents and levels of passion to the table. But after a night of indulging in mushroom tea, the trio bond in a way that Sole has never done with anyone before.
Director: Numa Perrier
Watch on: Netflix
Loosely based on the life of writer and director Numa Perrier, Jezebel is a film that examines the journey of a young Black woman as she embraces her womanhood and sexuality. When her mother passes, Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille) is forced to move into her aunt Sabrina’s (Perrier) overcrowded apartment with her brother and younger sister. It’s a rough time financially for everyone living there, and when Sabrina’s boyfriend complains that Tiffany isn’t contributing her fair share to the household, Sabrina hooks Tiffany up with a cam girl gig. Tiffany, known to the guys who use the site as Jezebel, becomes a fast favorite. She develops a relationship with one of her regulars, Bob, who becomes a support system for her emotionally and financially after she confides in him about her mother’s passing in an arresting scene.
Things begin to look up for Tiffany as she excels at work, but jealousy from co-workers and an incident where Tiffany is called a racial slur puts her career and security in jeopardy. Tiffany’s journey from a naïve girl unsure of herself after family trauma to an empowered and highly skilled cam girl is a pleasure to witness. Perrier’s directorial style practically drips sensuality from the screen and her intimate knowledge of the subject matter makes this story all the more intoxicating.
Fast Color (2019)
Director: Julia Hart
Watch on: Amazon Prime, Hulu
Fast Color is a film about three generations of Black women with supernatural abilities. Bonnie (Lorraine Toussaint) , her daughter Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and her granddaughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) come from a long lineage of women with these abilities, and they have remained hidden and isolated from the world to protect themselves. Ruth is slightly different from the other women in her family. As a girl, whenever she used her abilities strange things would happen, and when she started having seizures they caused mass destruction in the form of earthquakes. As a teenager, she leaves home and struggles with substance abuse, but returns to reconnect with her mother and daughter.
The film starts as a slow build, with Ruth running away from government agents trying to capture her to conduct studies on her. But the film’s beauty comes from the intimate moments between the three generations of women once Ruth returns home to work on mastering her power. Toussaint’s presence on screen is compelling and her character Bonnie is a nurturing matriarch committed to protecting her family and their legacy. Ruth and Lila reacquaintance with one another after years of estrangement is sweet, particularly a tender moment where they bond over old music records of X-Ray Specs, Lauryn Hill, and Nina Simone. Ultimately, this is a story of motherhood, stepping into one’s power, and taking control of your life.
Director: Mati Diop
Watch on: Netflix
Mati Diop’s feature-length directorial debut Atlantics (Atlantique) isn’t the traditional coming of age story. It is probably better defined as a supernatural-mystery, romance drama. However, its focus on a young woman named Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) and her tragic romance earns it a spot on this list. The film takes place in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal. Ada is engaged to Omar (Babacar Sylla) and her union would bring happiness and contentment to many of her peers because it would be an advantageous marriage during a time of financial hardship and low employment security in her community. None of this matters to Ada because her true love is Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a construction worker at the site of a futuristic tower owned by a super-wealthy developer.
After four months of work with no wages, Soulieman and his co-workers decide to emigrate to Spain by sea for a better opportunity. Ada is riddled with anxiety as she awaits to hear of Souleiman’s safe arrival to Spain and prepares for her wedding. The night of her wedding, Ada and Omar’s wedding bed randomly catches fire and Ada becomes a main suspect until a mysterious illness spreading throughout the neighborhood reveals a spiritual reckoning no one could anticipate. Diop’s beautifully crafted film language and social commentary make this film a must-see, but it’s Ada’s determination to assert her independence and realization of the woman she is and destined to become that makes this film memorable.
Director: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Watch on: Hulu
This story about young love is as hot and sticky as summer nights in Harlem — the city that serves as Premature's backdrop. On a regular night out with friends, Ayanna (Zora Howard), a 17-year-old poet one month away from going off to college, meets Isaiah (Joshua Boone), a young music producer who is new to New York City. They meet one evening at a basketball court and immediately hit it off. A vigorous summer romance ensues, one that includes long walks around New York, family BBQs at the park, and a late-night game of spades that leads to hurt feelings and misunderstandings about Isaiah’s ex-girlfriend.
From its spritely debates on black culture and soft, glossy color palette, to its jazz heavy soundtrack and intimate portrayals of Harlem neighborhoods, the film screams underrated love story for the ages. The claim has been made time and again, but this film is arguably the Love Jones for the millennial generation. Except, instead of the frustratingly avoidable miscommunications that separated Nina and Darius, a trip to the clinic and a heart-wrenching scene with Ayanna in a bathtub cause this couple to drift apart. Can the couple reconcile their issues? The ending leaves the audience guessing, but serves as a bittersweet exploration of what happens when young love is burdened with adult emotions and situations.
Selah and The Spades (2020)
Director: Tayarisha Poe
Watch on: Amazon Prime
Selah and The Spades invites viewers into the illicit and mysterious activities of a private school in Pennsylvania. This arena is not typically used as a playground for Black youth in film, but this one follows Selah, played by Lovie Simone, a black girl running an underground drug operation. She is portrayed through a lens of youthful rebellion and mischief, characteristics most commonly explored with white characters. Selah is completely uninterested in the regular events of high school like prom and dating and instead is laser-focused on ensuring the legacy of her faction. In order to save the longevity of The Spades, Selah takes underclassman Paloma under her wing and teaches her everything she knows. When events take a turn for the worse after a colorful, acid-trip-esque party scene that could easily be mistaken for a scene from Euphoria, Selah’s insecurities begin to get the best of her. She begins to grapple with her own vulnerability, apparent in a scene of her practicing her smile in a vanity. The pressures of academic perfection from her mother spills over into her operation when things begin to get sloppy, and her own conflict with power bubbles to the surface when her right-hand man Max makes a dire mistake. The same control her mother exerts over her she uses within her faction as a way to regain control over her life but is devastated when everything she has worked towards is in danger of falling apart.
Miss Juneteenth (2020)
Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Watch on: Amazon Prime
Necole Beharie is an absolute marvel in this story of pageantry and southern tradition in the small Texan city of Forth Worth. Beharie plays Turquoise Jones, a former crowned Miss Juneteenth who didn’t quite live up to the prestige the title affords its holders. Winners typically take advantage of the full tuition prize awarded them to attend any Historically Black college and university of their choosing and go on to become high-status members of their community. But throughout the entirety of the film, Turquoise is reminded of her failure to “make something” of herself as she scrapes by earning low wages and tips from odd jobs as a waitress and a mortuary cosmetologist.
None of her hard work is in vain though, as she skips on paying the light bill to save and pay for her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to participate in the very same pageant. Kai has no interest in the pomp and circumstance of becoming Miss Juneteenth, and would prefer to spend her time perfecting her dance skills so she can join her school’s drill team. It’s an inconvenient truth Turquoise chooses to ignore throughout the movie, as her efforts prove to be more of her trying to find a new purpose for her own life instead of encouraging the best life path for Kai. The film serves as an intriguing account of what it means for women to establish identity free of others’ expectations.
Director: Maïmouna Doucouré
Watch on: Netflix
Cuties is a French film directed by Maïmouna Doucouré that taps into the preadolescent desire of young girls to fit in, be accepted, and make friends. The film follows Amy (Fathia Youssouf) during a period of transition in her life: her family has just moved to France, she’s starting at a new school and her mother is preparing to welcome a second wife into their home. As a firstborn daughter, she is responsible for the care of her younger siblings, and is the only child privvy to her mother’s struggle with accepting the fact that her husband is bringing home a new wife from Senegal.
Desperate for an outlet, Amy becomes fascinated with a group of girls at school. They seem to be everything she is not — free, stylish, cool, and dancers. Led by Amy’s neighbor Angelica (Medina El Aidi), the girls are prepping to compete in a local dance competition. It’s not easy for Amy to join the group of rambunctious girls, but she eventually does and quickly becomes entangled in their pre-teen antics of trying to appear older than they are. The group is constantly reminded they are too young for their stunts, like when a group of older boys call them “little girls” after they try to lie about their age, or when Coumba (Esther Gohourou) mistakes a pink condom for a balloon. They believe the only way to stand out and have a chance to win the competition is if they emulate the sexy and alluring nature of the women they watch in dance videos online. When a spot opens up on the team, Amy is eager to prove she can be the perfect replacement as she transforms into a version of herself she believes encapsulates femininity. The film is the perfect depiction of modern girlhood in the age of social media. It deftly critiques the unmitigated exposure to hypersexualized and sometimes misleading portrayals of what constitutes womanhood that pressures young girls to grow up too fast in order to receive external value and acceptance.
Morgan Grain is an LA-based writer and producer with southern Atlanta roots whose work focuses on black women’s contribution to entertainment, media, visual arts and culture.