Narratives highlighting people of color rarely find a place for themselves in the public eye. Historically, stories predominantly featuring white voices have controlled mainstream media. As a society, we’ve often ignored and even silenced what PoC’s have to say. It’s a bitter truth that many people of color grow up without stories of figures who look like them. Some may call it superficial, building an emotional connection based on appearance. What those people don’t understand is that as a person of color, your experiences navigating the world is often tied in with how you look. When all you see are white faces in films and other media forms, you begin to wonder if there’s a place for you in the world of fiction, even more so, America.
In recent times, many filmmakers have made strides to remedy this. In my opinion, there’s no use ‘catching up’ to the colossus that is white media, but in terms of moving forward, there’s absolutely no reason why the plane can’t be leveled. The coming-of-age-genre for one has begun to build a reputation for depicting more diverse characters. There’s a bounty of untapped creative subject matter in the experiences of POC youth and it seems mainstream media has begun to pick up on this. While the idea of PoC narratives being commodified by non-PoC’s introduces its own dilemma, there’s no denying that coming-of-age stories about young people of color will be beneficial for PoC youth in the long run. Here’s a list of five coming-of-age-films from the last decade about young PoC characters.
Rafiki (2018) is a Kenyan Romantic drama that follows the relationship between Kena and Ziki, the daughters of rival political opponents. It’s a story of forbidden love between two women who develop a beautiful relationship in the midst of a homophobic environment. The film is directed by Wanuri Kahiu, whose AfroBubblegum brand strives to make fun and colorful African art. Likewise, this film is beautifully shot and incorporates a vibrant color palette filled with varying shades of hot pink, light blue, and many other cozy colors. From what I’ve drawn from the film, it seems to serve as an important portrayal of both PoC and queer youth. The film also contains a mixture of Swahili and English, so if you’re looking for an aesthetically jovial international film with a rather bittersweet story, Rafiki (2018) can probably do the job.
Sensitive content: Homophobia, Mob violence against queer people
Girlhood (2014) follows the story of Marieme, a young Afro-French girl living in a financially underprivileged area of a Parisian suburb. The film, directed by French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, director of the recent hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), paints a picture of what a teenage girl must do to survive in a male-dominated community. It’s a story of friendship in the midst of oppression that, despite its grave subject matter, manages to appropriately incorporate the more lighthearted moments of life. If you’re familiar with Sciamma’s films, you might know her reputation for crafting stories about gender and sexual queerness. While I hadn’t noticed any explicitly queer themes in the film, I do feel that there is room for a queer interpretation of Marieme’s character. In all, I think Girlhood (2014) does quite well in depicting the complexities of the devil that is gender dynamics and one girl’s journey on surpassing what the world expects of her.
Sensitive content: Sexual harassment, Attempted assault against a minor
The Half of It (2020)
If you’ve been browsing recent hits on Netflix, chances are you’ve come across The Half of It (2020). This comedic drama, directed by Asian American filmmaker Alice Wu, operates through a messy teenage love triangle in the fictional small town of Squahamish, Washington. The protagonist, seemingly the only PoC (other than her father) and queer person in the town, struggles to find a place for herself in this community. It’s an experience that many PoC and queer audiences identify with. The Half of It (2020), while not without its painful moments, delivers a rather positive narrative, something that I think most PoC and queer youth could benefit from.
Pariah (2011), while not as recent as the above-mentioned films, shows another unique side of being a person of color, and additionally, a queer person of color. The film, directed by filmmaker and television writer Dee Rees, follows Brooklyn teen Alike who learns to come to terms with her queerness in her own way. Like Alike, many PoC and queer youth have little support on how to find their identity. While Alike does live in a predominantly black neighborhood, her sexuality is something that’s left ignored by people in her life who should be guiding her. In my eyes, Pariah (2011) is a rather well-made blueprint on one way to find yourself as a queer person of color.
These are only a few films that represent POC youth. While mainstream media still remains largely unbalanced in representation, depicting a diverse range of backgrounds is becoming more important to filmmakers and creators all around. Moving forward, we can only do our best to further this change as consumers and artists and hope that we’re moving in the right direction.
* For more information on sensitive content in film and television, I recommend browsing through Unconsenting Media’s catalogue.