Eighth Grade and Co: How Coming of Age Films Fail Teens of Colour

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High school. Popularity. Getting the girl (or boy). Driving off into the sunset. Caucasians.

Everyone has to grow up sometime.

When you think of the cheerleader, the nerd, the jock, any one of the archetypes from The Breakfast Club, what do you see? Miles Teller? Shailene Woodley? Saoirse Ronan? Timothee Chalamet?

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(left to right) Shailene Woodley & Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now)

Congratulations. You’ve got basic taste.

Or maybe you don’t. I’m not the boss of you.

There’s nothing quite like the human experience, especially stories about its most turbulent time: adolescence. Films have the power to shape, support and unite whole generations of people; few genres do it better than coming of age.

With films like Call Me By Your NameLady Bird and Eighth Grade, coming of age is on the rise again, reaffirming that children are the future — in case anyone ever forgot. These films are like comfort food, if food could break your heart and patch it back up again within a tightly-packed two hour window. Coming of age is designed to comfort, to remind us that we’re not alone and that we do have a place in the world.

Especially if you’re white. Right?

In case anyone has been living under a rock lately, there’s been an outcry for inclusion from women, people of color and the LGBT community. Black filmmakers are on the up and up, with triumphs from Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler in the past year. But a black-led coming-of-age movie is hard to find. None have met critical acclaim since Moonlight, and even that was short-lived after the Oscar win. And what about the girls?

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Ashton Sanders (Moonlight)

The 90’s and early 00’s were prime time for women of color. Most think pieces on coming of agers for black women peak in 2009 and feature movies like PreciousSet It Off and The Color Purple. Others are peppered with themes of racism, misogyny and poverty. Finding a coming of age film about a non-black female of color is harder still. Sensing a pattern here?

Discourse has been swirling regarding this phenomenon and Film Twitter is taking a beating for fetishizing the same handful of movies over minority stories. In the age of social media, perfectly adequate films have the tendency to gain the reputation of a masterpiece. Film Twitter is rushing to defend their favorites. But the thing is: it’s not about the movies. Call Me By Your Name is fine. Lady Bird is cool. Eighth Grade? A triumph. We just want our own triumphs too.

Hollywood can’t stand a black-led film unless it promotes oppression or trauma. It’s the reason slave narratives find their way into the Oscar pool year after year. And it’s the reason films by Coogler and co. are met with such criticism and backlash. The same can be said for stories of queer youth — so many films revolve around toxic relationships, suppression and secrets. Content with Latinx leads are laced with drug narratives — pun intended. It’s the same with any minority story.

Big-time producers don’t want us telling our own stories unless they can control how they’re written. Unless it’s rooted in self-hatred and violence, there’s no money in it, right? Wrong. Children of immigrants deserve to have their stories told. Our stories are too rich and too beautiful for them to be ignored in favor of our suffering. Growing up, that’s all I wanted to see: my story affirmed and that of the people I love and look up to.

Take a moment to think about your favorite coming of age film, a film that may have resonated with you when you were growing up, or a film that you run to when you’re feeling lost and alone in this world. Is it a little lacking in diversity? Does it star a person of color, but hangs heavy with an oppressive tone or a stereotypical norm that has been enforced by the majority? A story that features inclusion (while also steering clear of racial bias) is hard to find. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Films like Deidra and Laney Rob a TrainDopeBend It Like Beckham, The Joy Luck Club, and I Like It Like That are immaculate films that — while not without a little struggle — uplift minority women in a refreshing and endearing light. While three out of five were released over twenty years ago, they still hold up under scrutiny, and for a while they’re all we’ll have. That is, until films like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before are released. There’s also Jinn, one of the most anticipated movies of the year, that follows a young girl as questioning her identity when her mother converts to Islam. These films need our support — now more than ever.

I’m not the first person to point this out, and I won’t be the last. In fact, Twitter has been teeming with regurgitation of the same request all week. But I doubt it will get us much further. We’re hitting a wall, and there’s only so much that can be demanded on social media. If we want diversity, we need to do less tweeting and more writing. If we don’t write, we need to support the ones who do. Uplift each other, make a big fat deal about stories that are on track with the future we want to see. After that, we can only go up from there.

Editor: Raissa Vasconcelos

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Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!

You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.

From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.

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