May 27, 2014

Impressions: The Importance Of The Black & Brown Girl Friendship Narrative In 'Our Song'

Now here is something I wish we had more of.

In the search of something different on Netflix I came across the 2000 film Our Song the other night. It's initial drawing point was that it starred a then unknown Olivia Pope  Kerry Washington in what was her film debut, but there is so much more to it than having a mini-Madame Gladiator in it. Our Song is one of those films that doesn't sugar coat its themes and characters along with giving you a nostalgic sense of those carefree but complex years of youth. But it also does the one thing that seems lost on mainstream filmmakers. It shows people of color, especially teenage girls, as what they are --- ordinary people capable of good and bad times.

The film follows the lives of three high school friends --- Lanisha (Washington), Maria (Melissa Martinez), and Jocelyn (Anna Simpson) --- from Crown Heights, Brooklyn during one eventful summer as members of their community's marching band, the Jackie Robinson Steppers. Filmed documentary style by writer/director Jim McKay (who also explored the hidden lives of teen girls in 1996's Girls Town), Our Song is an excellent look at the power of female friendships, and how much of an influence our friends have at that age. It's also a telling snapshot of the myriad and timeless struggles teenage girls go through on a daily basis, and for these three girls they are all coming of age faster than their age allows thanks to their surroundings. Single parent households. Racial identity. Teen pregnancy. Difficulty finding proper schooling after an asbestos attack. Suicide. Financial struggles. Friendships crumbling. A lot is packed tight into this little film, but the acting, dialogue, and storyline carries it all off well, even sometimes too well.

Though I didn't grow up in New York, when this film was released I was just about entering high school, and I could see a lot of myself and my friends at that time in Lanisha, Maria, and Jocelyn, right down to marching band theme, style of clothes (Tommy Hilfiger everywhere...), and the intimate girl talks they shared.

There were three things that I thought the film handled sufficiently. Over the course of the film, Jocelyn began to break away more and more from Lanisha and Maria as she sought out friendships with girls who were more "like her" in terms of racially, as Lanisha was bi-racial and Maria was Puerto Rican. The tensions between them during their drift apart were realistic. Nothing feels rawer than realizing you don't have much in common with someone who you were really close with at one time and that one of the reasons for the split was in fact something skin deep. Their split was just so realistically amicable that it reminded me ended friendships that I endured, some of which ended when the realization of opposing race and culture became a factor.

Also the subplot of Maria's pregnancy could have been the usual stereotypical soap opera moment, but it was handled with much sensitivity to her character, and reminded me of a few friends in my high school circle who just got caught up into something that they really didn't grasp until those little blue lines showed up.

The third thing was how even though these girls were living in New York City under dire strains, their neighborhood wasn't shown as a war zone of drugs and violence, and its inhabitants as unfeeling underachievers. A sense of community was there, and the balance of showing both the virtuous and problematic gave this story and its characters an intricacy that led to a fuller spectrum of what it is like to grow up in that area and time era.

The straddling of girlhood to young adult womanhood is often a subject that girls of color never get the opportunity to chime in about. TV offers some window as growing up I had the likes of Moesha, Sister Sister, Family Matters, and The Cosby Show to go by, but they were mostly labeled as "sitcoms" and not taken seriously by mainstream (white) audiences --- save for the "special episodes" that cropped up every so often with the chaser of a hotline number at the bottom of the screen.

Film is a different story as there is more time allowed to paint canvases of characterization and subject matter, but showing the normalcy and complexities of young girls of color is barely if never covered, and if it ever is, they are crammed with stereotypes to where we get a zig-zag-snapping-talking-at-the-side-of-her-mouth caricature this side of Cita from Cita's World.

Girls of color don't often receive the Molly Ringwald happy endings in fiction, are the negated as the sassy best friends to Cher Horowitz in Clueless, don't get to be (good) magical witches like in Teen Witch, or aren't allowed go through oddball teen angst like the girls in Ghost World. When we are the starring characters, when the stories focus on us, we get the Precious treatment, the barefoot, aimless, abused, and pregnant treatment --- it's a one-size-fits-all ideal that doesn't apply to all women of color and their various experience. Some of us are Molly Ringwalds. Some of us grew up in places outside of New York. Some of us grew up in affluent areas. A lot of us have a diverse group of friends, interests, and dreams.

I'm not saying that all the Precious' of this world don't deserve to have their stories told. I'm not even saying that it's impossible to see your life in someone who isn't your race, culture, apart of your generation, or even your own gender --- inspiration is what it is and it can be pulled from just about anywhere. Still those are just a few stories, a few settings, and in this blurred and prismatic world, there are many more vignettes to be explored. Teenage girls make for fascinating fiction subjects, there's even a market for it, except that that market is exclusionary, and I'm getting tired of that.

Watching Our Song made me realize (once again) why we need to explore more humanizing stories concerning girls and teen girls of color and the friendships they covet and convene in. Even though the film does lend into the trend of POC 21st Century films being seen through an urban subject tunnel, but Our Song detours off the "ghetto girl" stereotype as it creates characters that once the credits roll you want to know more, want to root for further, have seen all sides to them, find yourself in them, and in the end, essentially begin to care for.

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