In many West African cultures, griots are the keepers of memory, their oral traditions simultaneously positioning them as fabulists, historians, genealogists, entertainers, and messengers. To serve as a voice for a people is a heavy burden—colonization has dispossessed many Indigenous communities of the cultural artifacts that hold their history, and the triangular slave trade decimated the landscapes and kingdoms of various ethnic groups. But griots remind people that we truly die only when we are forgotten, not when we are separated from our earthly bodies or environments.
Hawa, the second feature film from the director Maïmouna Doucouré, serves as an apt, fantastical canvas to explore this dynamic between legacy and memory. Streaming on Amazon Prime, the coming-of-age story follows its titular character (played by Sania Halifa), a young Malian girl in Paris who is struggling to accept the impending death of her griotte grandmother. Maminata, compellingly rendered by Oumou Sangaré, the legendary Wassoulou musician, is not only Hawa’s last remaining relative, but also her anchor to Malian culture. She teaches Hawa the Bambara language and tries to impress upon her the importance of griots’ musical stylings and magical storytelling conventions.
Maminata’s terminal illness means that, in addition to finding a new home for herself, Hawa will also have to protect the memories her grandmother has entrusted her with. But instead of reconciling the trauma of seeing Maminata through her final days, Hawa avoids her pain and latches on to the idea that she will be adopted by Michelle Obama—who is on a four-day book tour in Paris—if she can just find a way to meet her. The ensuing journey sets the stage for Hawa to eventually acknowledge her grief and confront her fear of failing to carry on Maminata’s teachings.
Doucouré’s depiction of how people honor familial histories is bracing, filled with melancholy but imbued with tenderness. Scenes where Maminata brings Hawa along to weddings and performs in full regalia, singing stories about the host family’s ancestors and blessing their legacies, give a glimpse of the esteemed role and function of a griot at their best. They also highlight Maminata’s fading charm: She forgets newlyweds’ names during celebrations and repeatedly loses her command of lyrics, each error resonating like a foghorn in a quiet room. Those moments are delicate and earnest, making up for the fact that following Hawa’s harebrained plan to meet the American former first lady requires the audience’s significant suspension of disbelief.
On her adventures to encounter Obama, the brusque teen infiltrates a concert venue, slips into a children’s hospital, runs through a private airport hangar, and dodges elaborate security checkpoints on her scooter. Hawa navigates the film’s various settings with a sense of audacity that is not generally afforded to a young Black girl. But because her appearance—albinism, a soft golden afro, coke-bottle-thick glasses—lends her a sense of invisibility, Hawa is emboldened as she barrels her way toward Obama. The sharply written script, buoyed by its surrealist bent, facilitates the plot well enough that the impracticalities aren’t too distracting.
Obama as the source of Hawa’s fixation is a clever directorial choice—she serves both as a global avatar for Black women and as a blank canvas for young girls to project their hopes and dreams onto. She is never shown on-screen outside of recycled press footage, which is used sparingly and to great effect. To frame Hawa’s ultimate “interaction” with the former first lady, Doucouré employs a blurry lens, indicating the point of view of a glasses-free Hawa (her spectacles were ruined mid-pursuit), and homing in on the notion that Obama exists in many young girls’ heads as more of a concept than a fully realized individual. She’s the perfect plot device to show how Hawa is processing the imminent loss of her parental figure: In a revealing scene, Hawa unironically tells a security guard that Obama is her mom, a nod to her search for a new, yet familiar, elder to cling to.
Along her journey, Hawa encounters the singer-songwriter Yseult and the astronaut Thomas Pesquet, playing mildly satirized versions of themselves. The French celebrities tell Hawa about their own relationships with grief and explain how it has shaped their evolution as adults. Pesquet became an astronaut so that he could find his grandmother in the skies, and Yseult, who lost her grasp of Cameroonian Eton after her brother died, associates her connection to the language with the anguish left in place of her most intimate relationship. Performing her song “Corps” as Hawa watches from the sidelines, Yseult sings in French, “I have lost my mind / Where is the way home?” and later considers honoring her brother’s memory through reengaging her indigenous language. Hawa is captivated as Yseult’s dancers animate the emotional chaos that has taken hold of her young life, every movement layered with intention as if it has a direct link to Hawa’s inner turmoil.
Throughout the film, Hawa is loath to commit to the work of memory; it requires that she confront a very present pain that she would rather avoid, though her emotions occasionally crash through her hardened shell like a tidal wave. But by the time she finally meets Obama, after her grandmother has died, Hawa is able to embrace her sorrow as part of a beautiful history, one that is hers to share and protect. Instead of advocating for Obama to adopt her, Hawa hands her one of Maminata’s seashells as a keepsake, and pleads for her to listen to the story of her grandmother so that her beloved elder will not be forgotten.
Doucouré’s potent exploration of Hawa’s full emotional landscape is marked with pathos and whimsy, offering a more nuanced alternative to the director’s 2020 debut, Cuties, another slightly absurdist coming-of-age story situated in adolescent girlhood. Where Cuties at times took for granted its audience’s cultural fluency, Hawa is imbued with a more holistic care that makes the film hard to misunderstand. The film isn’t perfect: What ends up happening to Hawa, for instance, is a bit too tidy. But Hawa succeeds in its stirring portrayal, beautifully rooted in West African tradition, of a girl finding comfort in remembrance when the world is shifting under her feet.