Being a black girl isn’t a monolithic experience, but we all share one beautifully nuanced, unpredictable one: girlhood. It’s a journey through growing pains toward identity, self-awareness and understanding of self and space. For each black girl, coming of age looks differently. For some, it’s littered with good-for-nothing serial boyfriends and braided hairstyles. For others, it’s profoundly exploring religion and growing up “too fast.”
Directors and producers have masterfully found ways to increasingly represent and capture black girls’ various treks to womanhood—dissecting it, re-imagining it and allowing audiences to relive it time and time again. So whether you’re streaming on Netflix or throwing it back to VHS, make sure you’ve seen these 11 essential girlhood films.
Like the mythical spirit for which the film is named, Summer (Zoe Renee) shape-shifts throughout almost every scene to push the bounds of her identity. Not only does her hair switch from pink to silver between blinks, her beliefs ping-pong between the Islamic faith her mother converts to and her hyper-sexualized secular world.
Night Comes On
A family is a good portion of a girl’s identity and, at times, purpose. Eighteen-year-old, fresh-from-juvie Angel (Dominique Fishback) feels detached from herself and the world after her father kills her mother. As she sets out on a quest to kill the man who essentially murdered her sense of self, her little sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall), reminds her that life is worth living.
As a young girl growing up in Louisiana, Eve Baptiste is an empowered, curious force in a pivotal time in her life: learning plain truths about her family. Gifted with premonitions passed down from her Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), Eve discovers her father’s (Samuel L. Jackson) affairs, her sister’s (Megan Good) promiscuity and other adult matters that broaden her understanding of the world.
Akeelah and the Bee
If #BlackGirlMagic were a film, it would be this 2006 gem. The inspirational story of Akeelah, played by Keke Palmer, helped quiet the narrative that black kids from certain neighborhoods couldn’t excel academically. If ever there was a need to remind black girls that being smart was possible and cool, Akeelah is the poster child.
As her mother has cancer and her father naively supports his music career, Troy Carmichael (Zelda Harris) shoulders the responsibilities of taking care of the family. At times, she gets to enjoy the richness of being a girl—playing in the streets during New York City summers, experiencing sleepovers and the painful agony of having to sit still to get her hair braided—but she acknowledges early on how tough it is, and will be, to be a woman.
Just Another Girl on the IRT
There’s nothing like pregnancy to make you grow up quickly. However, Chantel is determined not to become a statistic as she explains directly to the audience—the fourth wall be damned. So she gets good grades and holds down two jobs, all while taking care of her brothers for a bit. But the slick-talking, around-the-way teen realizes her lack of real-world experience when she becomes pregnant with her good-for-nothing boyfriend.
One of the toughest things about growing up is growing apart from your friends. In Our Song, a group of high school friends—played by Kerry Washington, Melissa Martinez and Anna Simpson—bond over boys, family drama and the marching band. As college approaches, though, they realize their futures aren’t identical, which forces them on different paths.
Precious (Gabby Sidibe) suffers endless sexual, physical and verbal abuse from her parents, yet she still makes attempts to brighten her future by learning and being a good mother. Its realism is what makes this a heartbreaking narrative. There’s no happy ending here, and that, for some, is the entirety of their girlhood.
Once Alike (Adepero Oduye) begins to express her identity as a lesbian outwardly, her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), attempts to drown out her daughter’s individuality. Despite her mother’s lack of acceptance, Alike chooses to follow who she is and the people, family or otherwise, who support that.
Set in a poor black ‘hood of Paris, Marieme (Karidja Touré) adopts somewhat of a dual identity to navigate the pressures of fitting in and find a place she feels is “home.” She fights to assert herself among her new group of rowdy, confident friends and even masks her growing femininity to gain their approval. But after morphing into her new identity, Vic, she realizes she’s lost and can’t go back to who she once was.
Toni’s hallucinatory, dream-like world in The Fits articulates the transition from young girl to woman. Played by Royalty Hightower, the 11-year-old redirects her interests from boxing to a dance group in which she doesn’t quite fit. As she practices and longs to be one of the teens, she witnesses the squad’s alpha females begin to have seizure-like “fits.” Though not explicitly defined, these experiences are harrowing and unique, reflecting the duality of black girlhood’s many milestones.