Following the release of Black Panther, an unlikely hero emerged as the real star of the film. It was Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), teen sister to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and engineer of Wakanda’s Vibranium-based technological advances. She was a funny, brilliant example of young Black women dominating the STEM field when given the resources and support to do so. A month before the world was introduced to Shuri, Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) headed off to college on the Freeform series grown-ish, a spinoff of ABC’s black-ish. Only in her first semester, she is impeccably dressed, super woke, and learning how to balance her responsibilities with her social life. What I’m trying to say is that 2018 has been good to Black girls, and Netflix is falling in line with its latest film First Match, about a high schooler who joins an all-boys wrestling team. The movie’s take on Black girl magic doesn’t sparkle with glitter, but it honors our experiences nonetheless, daring you not to look away, even when you want to.
To put it simply, Monique (played by amazing newcomer Elvire Emanuelle) is struggling in the working class Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn. She has bounced around from one foster home to the next following the death of her mother and her father’s incarceration. A rough exterior and short temper have come as second nature to the teenager, and haven’t helped her settle into anyone’s family. The predatory nature of some of her supposed caretakers, especially the male ones, has also complicated things for her.
Monique finds solace, and an occasional place to lay her head, with childhood friend Omari (Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome), who is on the boys wrestling team at their high school. She dreams of reuniting with her father, Darrel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II from The Get Down), who she believes is still locked up, and remembers him fondly as the person who taught both her and Omari wrestling techniques when they were kids. But a harsh reality is in store for her when she finds her dad already out of prison, working at a local restaurant and uninterested in resuming his parenting duties. Even when Monique strong arms her way onto the boys wrestling team alongside Omari hoping to earn her father’s attention and affection, Darrel has more treacherous plans for her.
Monique is an imperfect character that refuses to fit into any preconceived notions of a perfect victim. She’s tough as nails, unwilling to bite her tongue when boys talk down to her, and unafraid to throw a punch when she feels disrespected. She rejects the requirements of respectability politics right along with boxes superiors and peers try to put her in. First Match opens with Monique’s belongings being thrown out of the window by her foster mother because the woman suspects Monique of sleeping with her boyfriend. Moments later, Monique is in fact in bed with the man and asking for money. Later in the film, she kisses but refuses to sleep with one of her wrestling teammates, despite the chemistry between them, because he has a pregnant girlfriend. As Monique seeks validation and stability, these are the kinds of juxtapositions viewers are forced to digest.
Ultimately, the contradictions in her life lead Monique to the realization that she isn’t defined by her proximity to a biological family. A network of caring people and her own passion are enough. And this, too, is a personification of Black girl magic, one that we need to see more of. Hood girls are often uplifted as purveyors of style and culture, creating trends that are often appropriated. But our resilience is what makes us truly spellbinding. Black girls like Monique find joy in the face of pain, accomplishment in the midst of uncertainty, and success off the beaten path.
Zoey and Shuri are both strong symbols of Black girl magic and what we can achieve when we are only given the space to do so. Shuri flourished in a fictional African country free of colonization and white supremacy, and in L.A., Zoey is the daughter of a marketing executive and a physician. But Black girl magic isn’t just the glow given off by the most talented and well-polished amongst us. Sometimes it's found in the alchemy of roses growing from concrete and wrestling adversity with superhuman strength.