Shea Coulee & Scott Studenberg
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What It Feels Like For a Diva

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Not Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For a Girl.” Not Beyoncé’s ” If I was a Boy.” Not even Stevie Nick’s “Sara.”  It’s Rihanna’s “Diamonds” that filmmaker Celine Sciamma uses for the centerpiece sequence of her movie Girlhood (Bande de Filles) to demonstrate the joy and desperation felt by young women going through sex role dilemmas. Mirieme (Karidja Toure) and her friends are caught between the social positions assigned to them as black French girls living in a banlieue outside Paris. The dizzying sexual feelings they’re just discovering in themselves match their heady, ghettoized social ambitions and—surprisingly—it’s all in Rihanna’s call-to-sisterhood anthem.

Mirieme and her girls rent a hotel room where they drink, chat, smoke and dance—away from the parents and boys who want to impose rules upon them. In a blue-toned reverie, Sciamma shows the clique flossing and sashaying to Rihanna’s entreaty. Karaoke has never seemed so natural or been so ecstatic as when these girls exhibit their sense of freedom. Mirieme and Lady (Assa Sylla) with their long wig-like tresses, Bebe (Simina Soumare) and Monica (Dielika Coulibly) with their hair stylishly straightened, emulate Rihanna’s pop-star glamour but they could be stars in their own right. Each is model-beautiful, plus they have the insouciance of radiant youth.

The “Diamonds” sequence recalls what many teenage boys and girls have fantasized in the privacy of their own bedrooms—or in danceclub abandon. As each girl gets to Rihanna’s repetition of the song’s chorus, “Shine bright like a diamond,” that chirpy note on the word “bright” breaks glass ceilings and melts your heart. I used to find the song annoying, now it moves me.

Rihanna’s recording isn’t gloriously musical like Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever” but Sciamma makes it equally poignant by finding the desire and impudence that makes Rihanna—not pop’s greatest vocalist but steadily improving—a heroine, still, for disaffected yet aspiring youth. Her ode to materialistic wealth reveals what traps many Millennials but Sciamma understands another meaning: the natural beauty of human will. You can hear it when Rihanna comes down hard on the word “diamond” producing an aural rhyme to “bright.” That will is what turns these coal-black girls into diamonds in the sky.

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Sciamma, who also directed the lesbian teen drama Water Lillies (2007) and the androgynous teen story Tomboy (2011) begins Girlhood audaciously: A possible dream sequence of nighttime football game reveals the rough-and-tumble athletes to be girls. Tough girls — and quite different from Rihanna’s ultra femme look in the “Diamonds” music video (directed by Anthony Mandler, the Hugh Hefner of music video auteurs). This team of lovelies is set to challenge rules, show their strength and reach their goals. That’s why Mirieme changes her name to “Vic” and shifts between allegiance to her martinet brother Ismael (Idrissa Diabate), a sleekly beautiful boy named Djibril (Cyril Mendy)and a neighborhood gangster Abou (Djibril Gueye).

Girlhood would be a conventional coming-of-age film like John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink  if it simply followed a predictable path to maturity. But Girlhood distinguishes itself, especially from Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, by refusing to offer Boyhood’s checklist of politically correct attitudes. Miriem’s impudence, her temptation toward the banlieu’s criminal underworld and that emotional ambiguity commonly called “fluid sexuality” are challenges to our expectations and confirm her humanity.

Together with gifted cinematographer Crystel Fournier, Sciamma stages several dance sequences where Miriem and her friends release their energy and flaunt their sexiness. These tableaus are as aesthetically impressive as the films of Claire Denis and the finest appreciation of dark-skinned black women since the American film How She Move. That was a conventional hip-hop dance movie but these black French girls provide the same empathy and transference that pop music audiences, especially gay diva fans and drag artists, have always appreciated, going back to pop’s first girl-groups. Girlhood conveys Rihanna, Madonna, Beyoncé, Stevie Nicksm and Shirley Bassey’s insight into what it feels like for a girl.

Girlhood opens in select cinemas Jan. 30. Watch the trailer below:

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