The trope of ‘black girl magic’ has gained box-office clout with recent films. But despite its progressive message, some fear it will become a marketing tool
Hollywood is having a black girl moment. That’s right, coloniser! Melanin has been dripping off the big screen for little over a year, creating new stars, new social media challenges – and women have very much been at the centre of it all, both in front and behind the camera. Hidden Figures, which came out in the US in December 2016, told the true story of the three African-American mathematicians who played a pivotal role in getting US spacecraft into orbit. It made more than $200m globally. Then in the summer of 2017 came the brilliantly bawdy comedy Girls Trip. Grossing more than $140m, the film introduced global audiences to the actor Tiffany Haddish, and provided an invaluable education in the many uses of a grapefruit.
We had to wait until February of this year to learn that the smartest person in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not Tony Stark (Iron Man) or Bruce Banner (the Hulk), but a 16-year-old Wakandan girl named Shuri, the sister of T’Challa, the Black Panther. Shuri, played superbly by Letitia Wright, along with her female co-stars present an image of black women rarely seen on the big screen: they are strong but not masculine; gloriously adorned but not exoticised; honouring their traditions and cultures but not dictated to by them.
“The fact that this particular image has natural hair and dark skin and women in positions of power, it’s … really just going to change the way children see themselves,” Lupita Nyong’o (who plays Nakia) told gal-dem magazine. Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time builds on this positive portrayal. The Disney fantasy film tells the story of teenager Meg Murry who travels across dimensions to save her scientist father. While trying to put the world to rights, Meg is at first deeply insecure about her features, particularly her curly hair. But as the story progresses, she comes into her own, loving and caring for her locks. It is a message that resonates strongly with black women. It’s a message of black girl magic.
“I wonder what this film would have done for me if I was nine or 10 years old,” says Paula Akpan, social media editor at gal-dem. “Seeing this black girl dealing with all the awkward feelings … like most young people, but it’s made worse by the anti-blackness you experience all the time. Watching [Meg] washing her hair and caring for it … I teared-up a good bit.”
Coined in 2013 by CaShawn Thompson, the term “black girl magic” celebrates the achievements of black women in spite of the adversity they face. “‘Black girl magic’ is a wonderful catchphrase because it subverts in just a few words all the classist, racist, sexist assumptions that are made about black women and black bodies,” says Mia Mask, professor of film at Vassar College, New York. The term has also proved to be lucrative. Black Panther has now passed the $1bn mark at the global box office and its success has completely skewed expectations (earlier in the month, headlines read: “A Wrinkle in Time stumbles with $33m” in its first weekend).
So is black girl magic coming of age in film or does the concept serve as an easy way for executives to market to audiences they know have been starved of representation? Also, does it always serve black women to be seen as magical? Emerging UK film-maker Jenn Nkiru is cautiously optimistic: “We are experiencing a moment. But a couple of films that have done very well is by no means a signifier that things have changed.”
Gaylene Gould, head of programme and acquisitions at the British Film Institute (BFI), mentions the pioneering films and film-maker collectives of the 1960s (such as the LA Rebellion and the Third Cinema) that “told all kinds of universal, powerful stories”. Black women took centre stage again in the 1990s with movies such as Set It Off, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale, all precursors to Girls Trip. But the proportion of black female film-makers, producers, distributors or even actors barely changed in that 20-year period.
“As a black woman, there is a pressure to come out of the gate perfect. If you don’t then you don’t get to make more films,” explains the Peckham-raised Nkiru, whose Rebirth Is Necessary won the Canal+ prize at this year’s Clermont-Ferrand short film festival. “I know a lot of white male counterparts whose work doesn’t do well and you’ll hear: ‘He’s still understanding himself as an artist. Let’s wait until his third film.’”
Having little tolerance for the failure of black women is a critique of both the film industry and of black girl magic itself. It is a concern that film studios, aware that diverse audiences will pay good money to see themselves represented in their strength, will still not support projects that portray diverse characters in their complexity. “I like black girl magic but I do think that [labels] can create a lot of pressure. It can have a huge impact on your mental health, leaving you with imposter syndrome. It’s OK to not be outstanding all the time; you’ll wear yourself out,” says gal-dem’s Akpan.
While the expression “black girl magic” might be relatively new, it is rooted in a much older history. “I think about black girl magic in the context of black women poets who came before and laid the groundwork,” says Mask. “Particularly Maya Angelou – and the poem Still I Rise – stands out as the progenitor for all this.”
Mask also names June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni, all American women of colour who “created a politicised movement out of poetry and left a wonderful legacy for the younger generation”. But it is former first lady Michelle Obama whom Mask credits for taking black girl magic global. “The sheer mass distribution of images of the Obamas engaged in socio-political activity was a game changer.” According to Mask, Obama was able to take vocabulary from the black community into the mainstream, as she did at the Black Girls Rock awards in 2015, but she wasn’t alone in doing so.
“If there was ever a fairy godmother sprinkling black girl magic around that would be Oprah,” says the BFI’s Gould. Having spent 30 years working in culture, Gould argues that the “lens is finally widening” in an industry “rooted in the power of white men”. “The fact that Oprah has linked up with Ava DuVernay [in A Wrinkle in Time] is wonderful,” Gould says. “Never in my lifetime did I think we’d see that.” The 2003 version of the film featured a mainly white cast.
Somewhat straying from its radical roots, Mask acknowledges that black girl magic – as with everything else in our consumerist society – is now a brand. “This is not to be cynical,” she says, “but this is branding of black feminism. It’s not enough to have meaning, you’ve got to present your idea in tweetable form.” She says it’s important to be “honest about how black culture works within a capitalist marketplace. Ideas must be presented in a way that’s appealing.” She offers the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag as an example: “There have been 20 years of conversations about the Academy Awards being exclusionary. Then April Reign developed #OscarsSoWhite and all of a sudden everyone is talking about the lack of diversity.”
On TV, there is a similar story: with the success of TV shows such as Insecure, Queen Sugar or Chewing Gum, one would assume that representations of blackness on TV are better than ever before. But Gould and Nkiru argue that we have actually gone backwards. “Change is like the figure 8,” says Gould. “We have high points and then periods of darkness, but every time there’s a high, things are pushed further [than the last time].”
For all the opportunities that black girl magic creates in film and on TV, ultimately Nkiru warns against creating another limiting trope: “What I want to see is black women represented as human beings: we win, fail, do right, do wrong. We’re not monolithic.”
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