Recent coming-of-age films have freed themselves from the pervasive white perspective… let’s keep them coming
Coming-of-age films are made to let teenagers know they’re not alone. Pulled from nostalgia and infused with angst, drama and romance, films like Stephen Chobsky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird made up my entire teenagerdom. While these films are meant to represent young people’s experiences, they, unfortunately, lack representation of race.
I’m a mixed-race woman of Caribbean descent, who grew up in the suburbs outside of Toronto. During my adolescence, I became used to watching films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Lady Bird. Although the white protagonists didn’t look like me, I kind of related to their experience of angst and unrequited love — it felt normal to see their world represented on the big screen.
These films about the white adolescence explored self-discovery and angst with certain experiences I could relate to. Yet there was always a disconnect because these characters never looked like me. It was rare to see someone in a film with my race going through those melodramatic teenage experiences. It left me wondering: Was there no relatability in a coming-of-age film about a protagonist who is a person of colour?
In the 1990s, there was an influx of black coming-of-age films like Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994) and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love and Basketball (2000). These two films were great for the decade, as they highlighted the relatability in the black youth experience.
However, growing up in the 2000s, I noticed a halt in films that capture the experience of black young people.
According to a 2018 study on women in TV and film, 70 per cent of major female film characters were white, while 18 per cent were black. While it’s frustrating to see this number, it’s not surprising. There have always been black characters in coming-of-age films, but usually, when cast, they’re a token character, a filler or a supporting role to the protagonist.
This is prominent in Booksmart (2019), directed by Olivia Wilde. The two protagonists, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are seniors in high school and spend the night before their graduation doing everything they didn’t do in their four years — partying, underage drinking and having romantic revelations. While the plot is relatable, the storyline isn’t anything an audience hasn’t seen before. With the only person of colour in the film being the sassy black friend with minimal dialogue, it was easy to notice the lack of melanin on screen. Now, with films like Waves and Moonlight, there seems to be a slight increase in black representation.
The film Waves (2019), directed by Trey Edward Shults, centres on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who are both a part of an affluent, strict black family. The film focuses on themes of self-worth, pressure, and the consequences of love — all played against a stellar soundtrack. Waves fits the mould of a typical coming-of-age film, but instead, the characters have dialogue, run time to breathe and are able to become their own people without being dwindled down to a stock character or stereotype. Shults’s film has an ambiguous ending, but he creates a narrative around young black people whose race serves as the backdrop to the plot lines of the film, as the characters go through the tribulations of being young. Despite the great success of Waves, there’s still a long way to go regarding black protagonists in the film industry.
Last year, researchers at UCLA reported only 19.8 per cent of film leads were a person of colour. It has become challenging to view a teenager’s world without the perspective of a white protagonist, which is why we need more diversity in our experiences shared on screen. Although mainstream films featuring a diverse cast are popular and currently dominating their respective audience — Black Panther (2018) and Queen and Slim (2019), for example — coming-of-age films, like Waves, don’t seem to hold the same value and attention when it comes to representation.
In the last decade, we’ve seen predominantly white characters gracing the mainstream screen. Boy Erased (2018) is about a white male facing his sexuality at a gay conversion therapy camp. We’ve already seen the struggle with sexuality from a black person’s perspective, in Moonlight (2016) directed by the fantastic Barry Jenkins, who consistently puts young black people as leads in his films. There’s also Eighth Grade (2018), a film filled with awkwardness and second-hand embarrassment, from the 13-year-old white protagonist’s perspective. A film with a similar tone is The Fits (2016), about a young black girl learning to find her voice and becoming a woman. But it hasn’t garnered the same attention as Eighth Grade.
If art imitates life, the films we see should be representative of all of us, not just a sliver of the population. The films about racialized teens are not consistently produced and it’s important to ask whether it’s constructive to reuse the same plot lines, characters and racial dynamics over and over again.
Until there is a noticeable shift in the racial demographics of main characters, young people of colour will only rarely get an inclusive space on-screen. White film characters will continue to dominate the screen, and that amounts to an injustice to those who look like me.