Debutante balls for young Black women go back centuries to the late 1700s in New York City. Similar to their white counterparts, these events saw young Black women being presented to society, though they were not focused on preparing participants for marriage. Black debutantes were taught good manners, grooming and social etiquette, hoping to prepare these young women for the outside world. 

More than 300 years later, Black debutante balls are still alive and well in many communities around the U.S. One debutante ball in Canton, Ohio, is the subject of Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker Contessa Gayles’ latest project, The Debutantes. The documentary follows an intergenerational group of Black women and girls in the Midwest city, revitalizing the long-defunct debutante ball that was once a popular tradition of the area’s Black middle class. 

The BET Studios, NBC News and Westbrook Studios project recently debuted at the Tribeca Festival and its intimate, layered portrayal of Black girlhood earned praise. Gayles expounded on her desire to portray young Black women coming of age, the powerful connection between generations of Black women, and what it means to build a community in a recent chat with Blavity’ Shadow and Act.

“What really excited me about telling this story was the opportunity to tell a Black girl coming-of -age story, and to have multiple girls through which to represent that experience. I feel like coming of age stories are missing representation, both in nonfiction and fiction,” Gayles shared. “There could be a lot more of it and a lot more variety of it.”

The documentary follows several girls participating in the Stark County Debutante Cotillion. The Stark County Alumnae of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., in partnership with the Leila Green Alliance of Black School Educators, spearheaded the revitalization of the event in 2021 after a 12-year-hiatus, this time, making sure Black girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds could participate. 

Photo: BET Studios

“With this cotillion, they wanted to do differently and bring it back in a way that was more accessible to a wider variety of girls within their community,” Gayles said. “There was a lack of programming for Black girls in the area, and they saw girls kind of slipping through the cracks in terms of educational attainment, economic markers like employment, and all of that. And with that being the kind of backdrop of not wanting Black girls and Black women to be left behind, they wanted to revive this tradition and make it more accessible so that girls who come from lower-income backgrounds could have access to something that is celebratory of them as Black girls.”

The Debutantes does not shy away from the tradition’s controversial history, a tension that Gayle prioritized reflecting.

She shared, “There’s pushback, and there’s questions like, ‘What does wearing the white dresses represent?’ Is it meant to represent rules around dress code, no visible tattoos, no body piercings?’ All of these kinds of things that are more or less markers of respectability politics and traditional gender norms, patriarchy. The girls poke those holes.”

Telling a story of an “intergenerational dialogue played out between the Gen Z girls who are being presented as debutantes and the women of the older generations, who are organizing the cotillion — their mothers and their grandmothers” was another valuable layer Gayle wanted to peel back for viewers. 

Photo: BET Studios

“I wanted to represent the push and pull between the past and the present, the tradition and the legacy and the history, and the forward-looking elements of the new generation through what we were representing cinematically,” she explained. “We did a lot with the archive, mixing the archival, old black and white footage of Black middle class life and Black cotillions with video diaries and TikTok videos of the girls dancing and taking the presentation of how they want to represent themselves into their own hands with those new media elements.”

Of the participants’ experience, Gayles shared that the event seemed to have a lasting, positive effect on them. 

“I think that the girls really understood that they were building a community with a bunch of other Black girls. And that was really uplifting and formative for them,” she said. 

Creating The Debutantes came at an extraordinary time for Gayles, only adding meaning to the documentary’s poignant and powerful message. 

“I was pregnant while we were editing and just welcomed my daughter recently, and it’s really made me reflect on another big theme of the film, which is the mothering aspect,” she shared, adding that capturing the “communal mothering and the mentorship aspect of the cotillion” hit home. 

Ultimately, Gayles hopes viewers walk away with the understanding that “Black girlhood should be protected and celebrated.” 

“I think Black girls, in particular, are often adultified early and not allowed to really live in their childhood and in their innocence and have this opportunity to grow into themselves as adults in a joyous way,” she said. “That was really what I wanted to capture in the film — all the hardships and the difficult things to navigate about this transition, a childhood that maybe isn’t idyllic, but still has joy and celebration, and that Black girls are worthy of that joy and celebration.”