She Paradise

Black women deal with a perpetual struggle to be seen. And with that struggle comes how we see ourselves and how we are presented, which manifest differently to each observer. As we fight to wave our empowerment flag, some may see it as a signal to attack or that we are prey, things to be conquered or tamed. In Maya Cozier’s debut feature film, She Paradise, one young woman’s coming of age story shows that reimagining oneself has its downfalls and triumphs.

Sparkle (Onessa Nestor) is a sweet, 17-year-old girl who lives with her grandfather (Michael Cherrie). He’s a goldsmith with a struggling business, and as a recent graduate, Sparkle is looking for gainful employment. Enchanted by a group of Soca backup dancers recruiting new blood, she auditions for the troupe, telling her disapproving grandfather she’s working for party planning for Carnival, the biggest annual event in Trinidad. It’s an uphill climb since the women in the group are tough and can see how green Sparkle is. When she woos them with some stolen jewellery from her grandfather’s stash, they’re won over, especially Mica (Chelsey Rampersad), who becomes her defender and teaches Sparkle the ropes to keep up with the hard-partying, straight-shooting women.

Sparkle immediately catches the eye of Skinny (Kem Mollineau), a successful musician and producer who makes her his muse. As she navigates this new world of womanhood, Sparkle has to come to terms with her loss of innocence, her grandfather’s approval and who she wants to be as an adult.

From L-R: Denisia Latchman as Shan; Onessa Nestor as Sparkle; Kimberly Crichton as Diamond; Chelsey Rampersad as Mica.

Director Maya Cozier’s first film is simple in its premise—a coming of age story—but she also incorporates a complex set of conditions growing up as a Black Caribbean woman. Being of Trinidadian descent myself, I love how culturally specific She Paradise is, highlighting the constant war to be women in charge of our own destinies instead of toeing the line. There are assumptions about respectability that persevere even in 2021, where the strong division between good and bad girls still exists. The backdrop of prepping for the Trinidad Carnival is perfect for exploring this. On the one hand, Carnival is a cultural phenomenon that represents letting loose before Lent. This no-holds-barred celebration allows the most pious of the community to have fun. A sensuality comes along with it, harkening back to Bacchus and Bacchanalia. Historically, money made from the tourism generated by Carnival is a fiscal boost that’s hard to deny for everyone involved. But this celebration is also frowned upon—you can’t enjoy yourself too much, especially for local women who deal with the prescribed societal norms and judgements written by their community. Cozier is the perfect person to bring this story to the screen since she was a part of an acclaimed hip-hop troupe. With her experience as a dancer and being of Trinidadian descent, she documents the world of a “Jamette” or carnival dancer.  Along with her co-writer Melinda Brown, they investigated the stigma associated with it, incorporating the growing music industry and the sexism associated with that world too.

Watching Nestor’s subtle but impactful performance as she takes Sparkle from quiet to fierce is an empowering journey, and as viewers who have been-there-done-that see her missteps coming, it’s an all too typical story that hits right in the heart. The dancers and their different personalities were great foils for the innocence stripped from Sparkle once she’s initiated into the world of the fast-talking and fast-moving music industry.

She Paradise is a complex look at freedom of expression and owning your sexuality. Exploring this without judgement is key in Sparkle’s journey from a girl to a woman, and her abrupt awakening is something specific to Black Caribbean women, but many women of all colours can relate to.

See it on Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms.

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