"Auntie" Yaa Otoo has a great blessing in her life. The Ghanaian immigrant owner of a Bronx beauty shop has a daughter, Rocky, who is bright, vivacious, popular and poised to graduate from high school and be the first woman in her family to attend college -- on a full scholarship at that. But Auntie Yaa, who dispenses warmth and wisdom to people in the neighborhood along with beauty lotions from her store, also has a problem. Rocky is willful, disrespectful and determined to leave the Bronx behind -- above all she wants to escape her mother's values, which she sees as stifling. Now, in the summer between high school and college, Rocky will travel to Ghana to visit her father, who is a traditional chief of the Ga people. As captured in the new documentary Bronx Princess, airing on PBS' POV (Point of View) series, Rocky imagines the trip as the first chapter in a new life of freedom. Auntie Yaa worries she is losing her daughter forever. Theirs is a typical mother-daughter relationship, one where banter and tears alternate, but with a royal twist, and it informs Bronx Princess from beginning to end.
Rocky Otoo, 17, center, stands with her father, Nii Adjedu I, left, and her mother "Auntie" Yaa Otoo, right, in the Bronx, New York. Photo by Yoni Brook/Highbridge Pictures.
The struggle between Auntie Yaa and Rocky in the weeks before Rocky leaves for Ghana is both intimate and heartwrenching. Mother and daughter butt heads over nearly everything -- how much time Rocky must spend helping at the store; the difference between book knowledge and common sense; even the difference between a "shirt" and a "blouse." Though moments of wry humor help relieve the tension, the conflicts leave Auntie Yaa in anguish. Rocky, too, is full of anger but looks forward to her trip to Ghana with high spirits. Auntie Yaa speaks for traditional values and sees family bonds and obligations as paramount. Rocky, an all-American girl, is all about individual freedom and personal fulfillment. Ironically, both mother and daughter ultimately worry over the same thing: Each fears that the other does not fully appreciate her struggles, whether as an immigrant mother or a teenager growing up in the Bronx.
For Rocky, her Ghanaian summer promises a break from life under her mother's tutelage. Turning 18, she'll be not only free and independent, but also appreciated for the ambitious, charismatic woman she is becoming. After all, in Ghana, Rocky truly is a princess. Her father, Nii Adjedu, returned to Ghana years earlier after he inherited a Ga chieftainship. In a call to him before she leaves the Bronx, Rocky half-jokingly demands the best bed in the palace, a Jacuzzi with grapes nearby and a police escort, stating that they are her due as Ga royalty. When Rocky turns the phone over to her mother, her father asks his wife, "Is she that beautiful that she can be saying those things?" Auntie Yaa can only laughingly reply, "You can say that again."
The phone call portrays a striking moment of family intimacy across time zones, generations and ways of living -- and gives an early indication that Rocky may get something quite different from what she expects in Ghana. In fact, she walks into a world more governed by clan obligations and codes of respect than anything she experienced in the Bronx. Bronx Princess gives us a wonderful glimpse of the richness of traditional West African life -- the camera follows Rocky from royal throne rooms to vibrant street markets. Rocky appreciates that richness, including all the attention that comes her way as the daughter of a chief. But the daily demands of social custom and hierarchical respect conflict with her precocious notions of freedom and independence. Soon she is butting heads with her father.
In Ghana, Rocky is forced to face contradictions in her own thinking and to take a more mature view of the tension between family demands and individual aspirations. One thing that becomes astoundingly clear to her is how alike she and her mother are. She also understands how determined her mother was to start a new life when she was young -- just as Rocky is doing. When Rocky returns to the United States she is no less intent on beginning her new life at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. But life on campus is lonely compared to life in Ghana or the Bronx. On her first visit home, she hungrily devours the traditional meal her mother prepares, commenting on how wonderful it is compared to the junk food she eats at school. Rocky is as happy as any prodigal child rediscovering the warmth of home, and Auntie Yaa can relax in tears of joy for the first time in years.
Buoyed by an infectious West African "high-life" score by renowned Ghanaian-American hip-hop producer Blitz the Ambassador and a protagonist who is irresistibly charming -- even when she is being a brat -- Bronx Princess is a coming-of-age story for the 21st century.
"From the moment we stumbled upon the corner shop in the Bronx, Auntie Yaa treated us like we were her own children," say co-directors Yoni Brook and Musa Syeed. "When the self-assured 17-year-old Rocky walked in, we saw a family conflict brewing: the teenage search for independence butting against her parent's stern guidance.
"We have deep connections to this story. As the children of Jewish and Muslim immigrants who have made journeys back to our parents' respective homelands -- Israel for Yoni and Kashmir for Musa -- we understood Rocky's journey. And as filmmakers in our twenties, we are still close to the experience of being teenagers trying to find a sense of independence. Like Rocky, we have parents who had high expectations when it came to our education. Just like Rocky's family members, our parents came to America to ensure better futures for their families."
Bronx Princess is a co-production of Highbridge Pictures LLC and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).