One of a handful of features directed by the beloved actor/activist Ossie Davis, Black Girl is a bracing alternative to the portrayals of African-American life that dominated U.S. screens in the early ’70s. Instead of the lurid violence of blaxploitation flicks or the pandering melodrama of message pictures, Black Girl is a straightforward story about a young woman trying to find her way in a world rife with unique expectations and pressures. Adapted by J.E. Franklin from her own play, the story concerns Billie Jean (Peggy Pettit), a black teenager living with a volatile extended family in Los Angeles.
Life is tough because the household’s matriarch, Rosie (Louise Stubbs), squeaks by on government assistance, rental income from the tenant of a back room, and occasional handouts from her ex-husband, Earl (Brock Peters). Raising children from several different fathers, Rosie also takes in young women like Netta (Leslie Uggams), whose biological mother has mental problems. Further complicating the household is Rosie’s mother, known as Mu’Dear (Claudia McNeil), who fights for dominance within the family.
Against this fraught backdrop, Billie Jean seeks to define her identity. She dreams of becoming a dancer, but risks her future by quitting high school after a quarrel with a teacher. Therefore, the main storyline of this densely plotted movie concerns a three-way duel between Billie Jean and her bitchy older sisters, Norma (Gloria Edwards) and Ruth Ann (Rhetta Greene). These two fear that Netta has taken prominence in Mama Rosie’s heart because Netta got into college, so Norma and Ruth Ann manipulate the impressionable Billie Jean into ruining Netta’s impending visit. The movie also features a long sequence involving Earl, who loves Rosie but can’t meet her high standards of commitment and responsibility.
The narrative of Black Girl is wildly overstuffed (all of this material gets crammed into 97 minutes), so the movie’s biggest problem is sprawl. Davis is adept at guiding performances, so individual scenes have impact, but the overall effect is dulled because Black Girl waffles between focusing on Billie Jean’s story and opening up to become an ensemble piece. However, the sincerity of the movie is undeniable. Everyone performs with great commitment, and Davis largely favors relatable interpersonal dynamics over cheap histrionics—notwithstanding the somewhat overwrought climax, Davis’ filmmaking is consistently humane and observational. Thus, his inability to pare down the story to a manageable scale is not the fatal flaw it might have been.
Black Girl: FUNKY