The Director in the Middle of the #CancelNetflix Backlash Speaks Out
‘Cuties’ filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré talks about the poster controversy and the global sexualization of our girls
Aside from rare examples like Crooklyn, Eve’s Bayou, and Beasts of a Southern Wild, Hollywood has dismissed the young Black female experience. But with her feature film debut, Cuties, French Senegalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré is putting the spotlight on Black girls while helping them reclaim their girlhood.
Doucouré won a distinguished directing award for Cuties when the film debuted at Sundance in January, but months later, she found herself in the middle of a media firestorm after Netflix released a shocking poster for its English-speaking audience. The poster showed a sexualized image of young girls that stood apart from the film’s religious versus secular context and nuance. Though Netflix has apologized for its failure, Doucouré has been the recipient of numerous death threats and personal attacks.
In recent days, the hashtag #CancelNetflix has trended in response. Some viewers find the film to sexualize young girls. Others point out that the film is the unfortunate victim of a poor marketing campaign and that critics took the poster out of context.
Set in present-day Paris, Cuties follows 11-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf), a recent transplant from Senegal who becomes increasingly enamored with her classmate Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), the queen bee of a group of schoolgirls who call themselves the Cuties. With her mother preoccupied by the devastating news that her husband has taken a second wife, Amy desperately throws herself into becoming a Cutie, even taking part in a dance competition with Angelica and her friends. Like most girls new to town, she just wants to belong.
Amid the film’s Netflix debut and the swirling social media scandal, Doucouré spoke with ZORA about Cuties, standing in her truth, and why this story is so important for her.
ZORA: What prompted you to write Cuties?
Maïmouna Doucouré: I was at a neighborhood gathering in Paris. A group of very young girls came on the stage to dance, and they were dancing in a very sexually revealing way. I decided to do research to see if they were aware and conscious of what they were doing. I met over a hundred preteens who told me their stories. I asked them how they felt about their femininity in today’s society. I wanted to know how they dealt with their self-image at a time when social media is so important, and they have access to so much information and so many images.
Amy stands at the center of two worlds — her conservative Muslim upbringing and what she perceives as the Cuties’ fearless world. Were you inspired by your own upbringing in a polygamous family?
As Amy did, I grew up in two cultures, and I wanted to show my personal story. I recreated the little girl I was at that age and what it was like for me to grow up with the Senegalese culture at home and the Western culture outside.
We see Amy helping to raise her younger brothers, though she’s still a child. Why was centering Black girl adultification an essential component in this story?
When I was 10 and 11, my dream was to be a boy. I saw that there were so many injustices that women had to live with around me. I didn’t want to have that; I wanted to have the freedom that little boys had.
How did you know Fathia Youssouf was the right actress to bring Amy to life?
When I was writing, I prayed that I could find an actress who could tell this profoundly personal and touching story. We auditioned 700 girls, and Fathia was the 700th girl. Believe me when I tell you that when I found Fathia, I cried.
Cuties has some uncomfortable moments. How did you navigate this with your young actors while ensuring that the story came across accurately on-screen?
I created a climate of trust between the children and myself. I explained to them everything I was doing and the research that I had done before I wrote this story. I was also lucky that these girls’ parents were also activists, so we were all on the same side. At their age, they’ve seen this kind of dance. Any child with a telephone can find these images on social media these days. However, these were composite shots, so the girls weren’t dancing like that all the time. We also worked with a child psychologist throughout the filming. She’s still working with the children, because I want to make sure that they can navigate this newfound stardom.
How did the Netflix deal come about?
The deal was done through our international marketing person, and I was thrilled, because it was already very well received in France. To communicate with the entire world in so many languages is the whole goal of filmmaking, so I’m thrilled.
“I’m eager to see their reaction when they realize that we’re both on the same side of this fight against young children’s hypersexualization.”
How have you been dealing with the fallout amid Netflix’s marketing catastrophe?
In the beginning, it was very paradoxical for me, because the film was getting great press and a great audience reaction. Now I realize that the people who have started this controversy haven’t yet seen the film. Netflix has apologized to the public and to myself. I’m hoping that these people will watch the movie now that it’s out. I’m eager to see their reaction when they realize that we’re both on the same side of this fight against young children’s hypersexualization.
What lessons can be learned when Black creatives give their work to a major studio and a marketing machine pushes it out?
I have learned that I need to take the time to look at each step, even beyond the marketing. In this particular instance, it was difficult, because we had to do things quickly. I didn’t see the poster that Netflix came out with before it premiered. Next time, I will see the poster, and we’ll communicate better.
Do you think women can choose their own journeys and become more than just “role models?”
I would never judge another woman. For me, being a feminist means that even if we don’t agree on everything, we should fight for each woman to be free to choose who she wants to be. With this film, I wanted to give these young children a voice while protecting them. I also wanted to create a mirror for adults to look at ourselves and see where we have gone wrong with this problem.
Amid the pushback against the film and everything else that is happening in the world right now, how are you taking care of yourself?
For me, what counts the most is my film. I can express myself and therefore take care of myself through my art. Cinema not only heals me, but it can change the world.
Cuties is now streaming on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.