When it comes to British TV shows and films, there are few which accurately portray my secondary school experience: an all-girls school based in London, with a black, female protagonist. Growing up, I had to latch on to the sporadic glimpses into my life as a teenager. St Trinian’s almost got it, but the school was predominantly white and based in a boarding house. Then there was Waterloo Road; but it was a mixed-sex school, based in the North of England and again, outside of Michaela’s character, I do not recall there being a sizeable number of black actresses. I May Destroy You seemed to have the most proximal depiction of my experience, but this was just a small arc in the shows’ overall storyline. Then there was Rocks.
Before watching Rocks, I had purposely avoided spoilers, trailers and essentially anything that would give me insight into the storyline. I knew it was a coming of age film focusing young girls in the UK and that was enough to draw me in. I was lucky enough to win a competition hosted by Bridge – a collective of Film and TV professionals who ensure the safeguarding and progression of upcoming talent that may have limited access to opportunities in the industry. As the film focuses on the issues faced by those with limited resources, this was a fitting opportunity to be introduced to them. We follow the life of Shola (aka Rocks) as she balances life as a teenager and ultimately a parent, after her mother leaves her and her young brother as she battles an undisclosed mental illness.
There are several moments throughout the film where I, and I imagine several other black girls, see themselves in Rocks. From the opening scene, we see her bicultural identity displayed as her mother and brother prepare the breakfast of royalty – yam and egg. It was heart-warming to see a dish that reminded me of home. Bangers and mash is nice but it’s enough, we’ve seen it, we get it. Such representation does not end with cuisine either. Later in the film we see Rocks call her Lagos-based grandma, using a calling card (shout-out to Lebara, Lyca and all the £5 squares we love dearly), where she is spoken to almost completely in Yoruba and replies in English. This isn’t exclusive to Yoruba people, or even Nigerians. Many diasporans may have had this experience and whilst it’s a relatively short scene, it represents the dynamics experienced when you are part of two starkly different backgrounds and the ways they mesh in day-to-day life. Furthermore, Rocks also portrays the life of many eldest and/or older sisters. Although her circumstances were extenuating ones, many Nigerian girls are made to take on a parental role because of anachronistic gender roles and the projected maturity that comes with said roles - and Rocks is no different.
Moreover, as initially mentioned, the representation of Rocks’ secondary school experience is the most realistic portrayal of mine that I have seen - ever. From the confused conversations around menstrual products and the freestyles accompanied by table-banging instrumentals, to back-chatting teachers and reductive body-count conversations, nostalgia was at its peak as I reminisced my young adolescence.
What was most accurate to me was its depiction of friendships between teenage girls. There is a societal rhetoric that portrays women’s friendships as competitive, bitchy and disingenuous, without any consideration for context. This coupled with the natural immaturity of any young person therefore deems young female friendships distinctively awful. However, Rocks shows a fair and balanced illustration of these relationships. Between her and her best friend Sumaya, we see an honest friendship. Whilst Rocks attempts to keep up appearances surrounding her mum’s absence to teachers, neighbours and even other friends, all lays bear with Sumaya and we see a strong bond and maturity beyond their years. There’s envy, a lack of vulnerability and even estrangement, but ultimately there are battles overcome and a love for one another that's visible even at their worst moments.
Rocks is also a story about multifacetedness. We don’t get to see Black British girls much, but when we do, there’s always the risk of surface-level representation, especially for girls who aren’t a size 10 or below. However, Rocks’ character is bold, witty, soft, tough, resilient - and all at the same time. Such representation is distinctively important given Black girls of her size do not often have the opportunity to be layered protagonists, let alone those warranting sympathy or empathy in British film or TV.
More than being just a film, Rocks is a reminder to young black girls in London that our stories are worthy of being told, despite the scarcity of representation in the industry. Even if the story-arc wasn’t so heart-wrenching, you can’t help but root for Rocks.