New Documentary ‘The Debutants’ Celebrates Black Girlhood Through The Cotillion Experience

A new documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, celebrates the beauty of Black girlhood through the age-old cotillion experience.

The Debutants follows three “debs”—Teylar Bradley, Amelia Boles, and Dedra Robbins—as they navigate the challenges of coming of age and make their transition into adulthood, NBC News reports. The film is directed by Contessa Gayles and produced by NBC News Studio.

The Debs wrestle with paying bills and financial management, family tension, and self-discovery in a judgmental world where adulthood comes all too quickly.

“I know a lot of times Black girls, in particular, are adultified at a young age,” Gayles said. “It kind of doesn’t allow us the opportunity to live fully in our girlhood and then to make that transition, and then have that transition be celebrated.”

It follows the 2022 Stark County Debutante Cotillion in Canton, Ohio, a Black debutante ball was revived to offer the cotillion experience as a program for Black girls, many of whom live below the poverty line. With cotillion experiences being predominantly white since their U.S. inception in the early 1800s, the documentary initiates a dialogue at the intersection of class, race, and gender.

Archival footage and personal video blogs recorded by the Debs were combined to craft the documentary. Also, archival footage was used to create “intergenerational dialogue between the older generation and the current generation of Gen Z girls,” she said.

Considering the skipped generations of debutante balls, the documentary captures the divide Gen Z has with the traditional cotillion experience, which includes the girls twisting up their faces during waltz lessons where their male dance partners are told to handle the girls like “you’re holding a delicate flower.” Other scenes show the traditional debutante dance between father and daughter where Robbins, who does not have a relationship with her father, wonders why she couldn’t share that moment with her mom instead.

Gayles aimed to document an intergenerational conversation in which cotillion co-chair Nicole Bush openly discusses the heavily gendered aspects of the traditional debutante ball. With how much times have changed since debutante balls were introduced in America in the 19th century, Bush admits to struggling with how to “rethink” tradition.

“That would make a better program for us, I know it would, to the community. But it’s just not within my values system; I’m old-school,” she told NBC News.

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