Girlhood: a rare close-up for young black actresses in French cinema

Girlhood, set in the Paris suburbs, will make a star of Karidja Touré and is a milestone for French cinema

French film-maker Céline Sciamma's much anticipated coming-of-age drama Girlhood follows Marieme, a teenager who, in the face of an oppressive family environment, zero future prospects and mean local streets, falls in with a badass (and sometimes plain bad) gang of girls.

Marieme is renamed Vic (short for Victory) by the rest of the crew. She changes her dress code. She straps down her breasts. She becomes increasingly androgynous. She hangs tough.

“I totally understand where she is coming from,” says Karidja Touré, who plays Marieme/Vic. “It is not safe to be a girl when you are in the suburbs of Paris. There are groups of men all over the place. And if you’re dressed like a Parisian, they call you ‘slut’ and shout at you. When you go out you have to be very careful what you are wearing.”

Girlhood – released as Band de Filles in France – has attracted a great deal of attention for its naturalistic depiction of the banlieues, those less-than-salubrious suburbs on the outskirts of Paris.


“I love that as we travel with the movie, people come up and say, ‘This reminds me of living in Paris exactly’,” says Touré. “It is a very realistic film. I have never seen a film like it before.”

Touré’s family – including estate agent dad and childcare worker mum – originally came from the Ivory Coast. She grew up in the 15th arrondissement, the city’s most densely populated arrondissement, but a nice post code.

“I’m a little bit different from my character because I’m not from the suburbs,” says Touré. “But I have friends and I have cousins who live in the suburbs, so I know what’s happening there. And a lot of the things that happen to the character have happened to me. She is told she has to go to vocational school, not high school. That happened to me. She is followed around shops by assistants. That happens to me and my friends all the time.”

Touré was in her first year of an assistant management programme when she was spotted in the street by Sciamma’s casting director. “They said they were working with Céline Sciamma and asked me if I had heard of her,” says the 20-year-old. “I was like, ‘Er, no.’ I wasn’t sure if it was a serious thing. If it was, why were they walking up to people on the street? But the casting director was looking for a black actress and we don’t have black actresses in France.”

She's not wrong. While there are a couple of rising black stars in French cinema – such as 35 Shots of Rum's Tony Mpoudja or The Intouchable's Omar Sy – black women are rarely represented on French screens. Tellingly, and rather sadly, Touré had very little contact with French cinema before making Girlhood.

"When I was growing up I never watched French movies, because I never saw a French film and thought, that would be my character in the movie," she says. "I only watched American movies. I don't know any French actors. I knew [Girlhood] was an important film for that reason. I hope other directors will see our film and will be more open to casting black actors."

Before the shoot, the “gang” members – including Assa Sylla’s “Lady”, Lindsay Karamoh’s Adiatou and Mariétou Touré’s Fily – lived together for three weeks in order to get the alchemy right. The director became the gang’s fifth member as they workshopped the script. “By the time we started shooting, it felt like we know each other a long time.”

Girlhood has already claimed a hatful of awards and has brought its star around the international festival circuit. She recently read for Storm in the latest X-Men reboot.

“When we did this film, we used to talk about what would happen,” she says. “The film will come out and we will maybe have to do interviews and maybe go to screenings. But I never imagined I would be going all over the world. I’m very, very happy.”

Girlhood is released May 8th