I’m a black woman who has always loved to dance- in classes, on stages, in performances, and at parties. I find freedom and ecstasy in moving my body, and getting lost in rhythm.
“The Fits,” directed by first-time filmmaker Anna Rose Holmer, follows Toni, a striking tomboy boxer who yearns to become a part of a close knit dance team, when a wave of mysterious fainting spells takes over the team and leaves Toni seeking answers.
Set in Cincinnati’s West End, the film takes place primarily in a YMCA-style gym where Toni first trains as a boxer with her older brother, and is soon lured into the abrupt, choreographed movements of her teen peers. In early scenes, Toni does several strenuous pull-ups in the boxing gym, her heading peaking in and out of the frame in vertical motion. Soon after, she stares through a door, watching teen girls manipulate the movement in their bodies between smooth and mechanical.
There’s an interesting way that Holmer plays with the idea of movement in both boxing and dancing for this character. Toni is drawn to dancing because it represents a rites of passage. Dance becomes a seduction into black teen girlhood, lip gloss, long hair, yoga pants, and sisterhood. The fainting spells elude Toni, as she hasn’t fully entered this realm of womaness.
When Toni finally tries out for the team, she brings a steely, tough innocence to a routine that many infuse with adolescent sass. It’s fascinating to watch her shift into this kind of movement, and unlike other films focused on dance, the camera stays still or moves with precision, framing her and the other dancers in a long, static shots. We feel her isolation as she attempts to master this movement.
Toni, played by Royalty Hightower, is captivating to watch just as Quvenzhané Wallis was in “Beasts of The Southern Wild.” She has a angled, angelic face with a pensive demeanor and two long french braids. She’s also a first-time actor, as are many of the youth in the film, who belong to the Q-Kidz Dance Team. The lived-in atmosphere and camaraderie ring true, even if some of the performances, particularly from the older girls, feel a bit one-note.
It’s also interesting that the film is hailed as “This Year’s ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ at Sundance” by “Vanity Fair” Writer Richard Lawson, because, like that film, which also features stellar performances by first-time black actors, it’s also directed by a white filmmaker, as was “Beasts.” Many would say that doesn’t matter, but I did wonder how this film might’ve been different if a black woman directed it.
Though I appreciated the eerie, psychological lens through which Holmer crafted this film with co-writer/editor Saela Davis, at times I felt like I was watching an anthropological study of black girls dancing, rather than a movie about a black girl who wants to dance. I also experienced a strange distance from many of the characters, as if they were sketches of something to come, but never did.
After the screening, I remembered the way I felt when I was twelve in a crowded dance class at Oakland’s Alice Arts Center, trying to master a routine to DMX’s Ruff Ryders Anthem. Girls stood next to me slathered in vaseline with Air Jordans, sweat-stained tank tops, bright hairbands, as their bodies bounced and jerked. We laughed and feigned shyness when we had to go up in front of everyone and dance in small groups, but broke out in black girl passion once the music entered our bloodstream. Even if you messed up, you kept going. We smiled at the dancer next to us, or rolled our eyes. Then we were tired and exhilarated, hair puffed out or sweated out. Dancing was life.
As someone who dances, I didn’t enter the film in this way. I was watching girls who looked liked me and danced like me, but who were depicted in a way that left me desiring more, but perhaps that was the point. There is an intentional obscurity to the narrative that is both intriguing, and frustrating.
But one thing’s for sure: Royalty Hightower is a star.