In the past, films centering young Black teens and girls have been an anomaly. Every few years or so we’d get movies like Crooklyn, Eve’s Bayou or Pariah that would shine a spotlight on Black girls. Thankfully, with the expansion of cinema, a new generation of Black girls are being elevated. From Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and the Spades to Nijla Mu’min’s Jinn and now Sarah Gavron’s Rocks–these movies are showcasing Black girls in a new light. Narratives like these are varied and nuanced examinations of what it means to be a Black girl in a world that will quite literally try and squeeze the life out of you.
In addition to being erased in film, Black girls are often adultified. The stereotype of the “strong Black woman” begins early, forcing young girls into difficult positions with way too much responsibly before they are ready. These stories are often showcased harshly–leaving little to no room for joy, familiarity or connection.
Rocks is a marvel because it does the opposite. Set in London, Rocks follows Shola (Bukky Bakray) aka Rocks, who is blissfully living out the final days of summer with her girls. The tight-knit group of teen girls all come from various walks of life and backgrounds, but they move together as if they’re one living breathing organism.
As the film opens, the girls stand on a rooftop looking out at the London skyline, bellowing Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” at the top of their lungs. They amuse themselves by taking pictures for Instagram or getting their faces beat by Rocks, who is quite the amateur makeup artist. As all of her friends part ways, Rocks stays behind for a moment, soaking in the sun. It’s as if she knows tomorrow will be different.
Rocks lives in a flat with her mom and little brother Emmanual (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu)– an intelligent and imaginative little boy who is wiser and more hilarious that many of us will ever be. On the first day of school–Rocks’ mother sends her children to school with bellies full of yam and eggs. it’s her final act of motherhood before she vanishes from their lives.
After navigating their way through their first day of school, Rocks and Emmanual arrive home to an empty flat. Rocks finds a note from her mother apologizing for her absence as well as a small stack of cash that surely won’t last past a few days.
We soon learn that Rocks and Emmuanal have been here before. This isn’t the first time that their mother had run off, leaving them to fend for themselves. Rocks is determined to press through for as long as she’s able. However, she learns the hard way that teenagers simply don’t have the life skills to navigate the world in the same way that adults can.
Rocks is so masterful because Gavron refused to tell some downtrodden story about another “sad Black girl.” Rocks is often stressed and worried. Still, the moments of levity and sisterhood that Gavron and screenwriters, Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson present in the film show that the support and love that women and young girls need are often given from other women.
Much of Rocks’ resilience and determination comes from her deep love and affection for Emmanual. Kissiedu is a breathtaking and ingenuous young actor–who will make you cry and laugh in the same breath. His chemistry with Bakray–clinging to her as his final parental figure, will certainly tug at your heartstrings.
The relationship that Rocks has with her best friend, Sumaya (Kosar Ali) is also deeply explored. The young ladies’ friendship is deeply ingrained in who they. Going well below the surface, we understand that Rocks’ envy towards her friend’s rich Somalian heritage, her two-parent household, and a charismatic new girl (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson) at school aren’t enough to rip them apart.
Beautiful shot and richly told–Rocks is an incredibly moving and powerful film about Black girl magic, sisterhood and realizing when it’s OK to say you aren’t OK. It’s so important to lay down our burdens as women and extend our hearts and our hands to our sisters no matter how difficult or terrifying that may be.
Rocks debuted Sept. 5 at the Toronto International Film Festival.