The coming-of-age genre is one of the most beloved around the world, with many children and teenagers finding reflections of their own realities in the magical realm of cinema. However, Black coming-of-age films have been a rarity and the historical under-representation of that experience is slowly being rectified by modern filmmakers.
Popular gems such as Boyz n the Hood are often cited as perfect examples of the Black experience but with this list, we have tried to explore some under-watched gems from different parts of the world which highlight important stories told by filmmakers whose artistic visions remain relevant for modern audiences as well.
Ranging from the Oscar-winning modern masterpiece Moonlight to classics of African cinema, these films capture the nuances of growing up in unique ways. While the future will certainly see the production of more coming-of-age tales from the Black perspective, these gems offer beautiful insights from their own sociocultural frameworks.
Check out the list below.
10 films about the Black coming-of-age experience:
The Wind (Souleymane Cissé, 1982)
A beautiful gem from the country of Mali, Souleymane Cissé’s 1982 film The Wind revolves around two teenagers who come from vastly different social backgrounds. While one’s ancestor was a legendary tribal ruler, the other’s father is a military governor.
The film provides an inter-generational view of the country’s politics, presenting a vision where the new generation is eager to move beyond the old structures of power and is constantly looking for new ways in which to problematise the established social order.
Yaaba (Idrissa Ouedraogo, 1989)
A moving drama from Burkina Faso, Yaaba tells the story of a ten-year-old boy who lives in a tiny village. He develops a strong bond with an old woman who has been shunned by the village’s elders because they think she is a witch.
However, the boy does not lose faith in the woman and refers to her as his grandmother. Even when she manages to save the boy’s cousin by finding the right medicine, she is abused by her own people but her values have a deep impact on the children who loved her.
Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
One of the greatest documentaries ever made, Hoop Dreams is the magnum opus of the sports genre. While many films tend to glorify the pursuit of excellence in sports, Steven James conducts a socioeconomic analysis of basketball and the American Dream.
The film conducts its investigations by following two Black kids who dream of making it in the NBA but are restrained by numerous obstacles which do not surface in most mainstream media representations of their struggle. Hoop Dreams is a haunting indictment of the lies that are sold to countless kids who cannot afford to dream.
Crooklyn (Spike Lee, 1994)
Set in Brooklyn, Spike Lee’s semi-autobiographical film follows a young girl named Troy who has important life experiences during the summer of 1973 which prepare her for her existence as an adult. The combination of Lee’s energetic visual narrative and a perfect soundtrack makes Crooklyn essential viewing.
While reflecting on the popularity of Crooklyn, Lee said: “I think that film is universally loved because of the family aspect, you know? An African-American family in Brooklyn in the early ’70s — I think that’s something people have been drawn to over the years.”
The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1999)
Among the most iconic creations of Djibril Diop Mambéty, this Senegalese masterpiece is about a young, disabled girl who manages to survive by begging for money and food. Deciding to do something on her own, she tries to sell newspapers on her own.
She navigates the cityscape on her crutches while attempting to sell copies of the national daily, becoming the first girl to do so. Although the landscape is dominated by men, she refuses to back down – a quality that resonated with the director since he dedicated the film to “the courage of street children.”
George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000)
While David Gordon Green is mostly known for his mediocre comedies such as Pineapple Express and The Sitter, he was also the creative force behind this masterpiece which is hard to believe since it was his debut feature as well.
George Washington is a surprisingly tender cinematic experience, showcasing endearing characters such as a young girl who gets tired of her arrogant boyfriend and is actually fascinated by an introvert who constantly worries about his soft skull.
Abouna (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 2002)
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun returned to the world of filmmaking last year with a new project called Lingui, The Sacred Bonds which received critical acclaim and was even nominated by Chad as their entry to this year’s iteration of the Oscars.
Even after all these years, Abouna remains one of Haroun’s most interesting works. It tells the story of two brothers whose lives are completely destabilised when they wake up to find that their father has deserted them which makes them indulge in erratic activities.
Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)
A solid modern effort by Dee Rees, Pariah is a fantastic addition to the growing oeuvre of New Queer Cinema. The film is about a 17-year-old teenager who comes to terms with the realisation that she is a lesbian while growing up in New York.
Navigating various identities in front of friends and family members, she tries to embrace who she is with her openly lesbian friend but her mother enforces strict gender roles on her. Dealing with volatility in her family life as well as her romantic encounters, she is subjected to various registers of rejection.
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
Probably the most famous film on this list, Moonlight received international recognition when it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also solidified Barry Jenkins’ presence in the world of contemporary cinema and he went on to make other projects such as The Underground Railroad.
Moonlight is a beautiful coming-of-age tale about a man, told in three segments relating to different periods of growth. It asks important questions about identity and sexuality, presented in the most mesmerising, cinematic way possible.
I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni, 2017)
A breathtaking debut feature by Rungano Nyoni, I Am Not a Witch revolves around a young orphan in Zambia who is discriminated against when the locals decide that she is a witch. She is relegated to a witch camp – an institution that exists in real life and was researched by the director.
Nyoni explores the concepts of violent coming-of-age, individual liberty and the historical connotations of witchcraft through this brilliant film which won major accolades. She also ended up nabbing the coveted BAFTA prize for Outstanding Debut.