As backlash grew across the Atlantic Ocean, the movie sparked interest here for another reason: Doucouré, who grew up in Paris, is the daughter of Senegalese immigrants. Her characters speak a mix of French and Wolof, the most widely used language in this West African nation. Her personal experiences shaped the story of an 11-year-old Senegalese girl who joins a preteen dance group.
“All my life, I have juggled two cultures: Senegalese and French,” Doucouré wrote this week in The Washington Post. “As a result, people often ask me about the oppression of women in more traditional societies. And I always ask: But isn’t the objectification of women's bodies in Western Europe and the United States another kind of oppression?”
The American criticism surprised Kadia Ba, a 35-year-old lawyer in Dakar, who came with friends to watch “Cuties” under the stars.
She saw herself in Amy, the film’s protagonist. Her parents are also Senegalese, and she grew up in Paris.
“I can fully understand what is going on here,” she said, laughing.
Doucouré’s lens addressed such upbringings with a rare sensitivity and understanding, Ba said. Pressure to please her family weighed on her as a kid. Yet she wanted to feel accepted in a world where scantily clad women danced freely on TV.
“You sneak out of your house wearing makeup,” she said, “and wipe it off before seeing your dad.”
Doucouré interviewed more than 100 girls in Paris for research and worked with the French government’s child protection authorities, as well as an on-set counselor. The director said she wanted to show the realities of their lives.
She found that girls see sexy videos on Instagram and TikTok, the endless stream of likes. They try to mimic that behavior, hoping it will make them popular.
“Spend an hour on social media and you'll see preteens — often in makeup — pouting their lips and strutting their stuff as if they were grown women,” Doucouré wrote in her op-ed. “The problem, of course, is that they are not women, and they don’t realize what they are doing.”
In “Cuties,” Amy is torn between her family’s traditional Muslim beliefs and the desire to fit in with the girls at school.
Outraged by her father’s decision to marry a second wife, she pours her energy into a rebellious neighborhood dance crew. (Not really a spoiler alert: Preteen attempts at twerking are met with looks of disgust in the film.)
“Cuties” garnered praise at the Sundance Film Festival this year, where Doucouré won a directing award. Then Netflix promoted the film with photos of Amy and her friends in provocative poses. (The company has apologized for its marketing choice but defended the movie.)
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other lawmakers urged the Justice Department to “investigate whether Netflix, its executives, or the filmmakers violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography.” A hashtag, #CancelNetflix, began trending.
No hint of controversy emerged at the Hotel du Phare on Tuesday. Viewers in masks occupied all 120 of the rooftop’s chairs. Latecomers sat on the floor. People laughed at the dancing scenes. They clapped at the end.
The hotel’s owner, Arthur Jadoul, wanted to screen “Cuties” after reading rave reviews in French media. He blamed Netflix for provoking the uproar abroad.
“For once there was a really good French film with a Senegalese director,” he said. “The poster is completely different from the content of the film. It’s a shame that Netflix had to screw everything up.”
Magali Colombo, who works at an international bank in Dakar, thought the film captured the messiness of adolescence. She found the story’s diversity refreshing.
As for exploitation?
“I mean, come on,” the 39-year-old said. “What about those American cheerleading shows with girls wearing makeup?”