The simple act of creating a space that centers black and brown girls is radical. If you don’t know this, just ask the Radical Monarchs, an Oakland-based group for girls ages 8 to 13 to learn about self-acceptance, body positivity, inclusion, intersectionality, and so much more. Founded by two queer women – Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest – who sensed a need for girls of color in their neighborhoods to have a program of their own that taught them about social justice and activism. The Radical Monarchs remains a grassroots operation with limited resources that cannot meet the calls for the number of applicants. Despite these challenges, Martinez and Hollinquest work as hard as parents to set up their Radical Monarchs to be ready to take on the world and its problems.
Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s stirring documentary, We are the Radical Monarchs, retraces the group’s shoestring beginnings to after the 2016 election. Over the three years documented in the movie, we see the young girls grow from shy participants in group activities to enthusiastic and outgoing friends. They listen intently and ask surprisingly tough questions of their group leaders and guests. The adults answer the young girls honestly as they explain what Black Lives Matter means, what is police brutality, how to tell someone they’re making you uncomfortable, why don’t we see people like us on TV shows, what does it mean to love yourself and what does it mean to be queer or transgender?
There are many challenges facing the two group leaders, who for most of the film balance day jobs while developing thematic courses, inviting guest speakers, and arranging for eye-opening trips for their group. Yet, both are driven to find and create the spaces for these girls that they never enjoyed in their youth. Martinez and Hollinquest invite a former Black Panther member to talk to the Radical Monarchs about the activist roots of Oakland. A Latinx transgender activist instructs the girls on how to stand up for themselves or friends if they’re ever faced with bullying. The Radical Monarchs learn screenprinting, make signs of their own, and march in demonstrations and Gay Pride parades. During a field trip to the California state capitol in Sacramento, the group meets with several politicians, many of whom are women of color, for some wise words and encouragement should they want to go into politics. There’s no way not to tear up a bit as one of the Monarchs enters the state house with a spin, her arms outstretched on either side as she says, “I belong here.” How many of us at our age can say we would feel the same about our government?
With beautifully candid moments like these, it’s easy for the story to outshine the film. At times, the documentary can meander a bit as the group goes through growth spurts, but the focus returns after the election as Martinez, Hollinquest, and their group try to make sense of their feelings and fears about the future of their country and the city of Oakland. Goldstein Knowlton takes her time to introduce several of the girls in the Radical Monarchs to the audience, and we become just as invested as Martinez and Hollinquest are in seeing them grow into proud, strong women of color.
We Are the Radical Monarchs screened at SXSW.