Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11 year old girl boxer charmed by forces she is yet to understand in Holmer’s unsettling and intimate feature film debut The Fits. Set in Cincinnati’s West End, we follow Toni’s turmoil as she becomes enamoured by the unbridled joy and confidence of the tight-knit dance community of girls at her school. She tentatively tries out for The Lionesses team after encouragement from her teenage older brother – her boxing coach and confidant – eagerly participating and absorbing routines despite her awkwardness. However, a mysterious outbreak of fainting spells plagues the team and Toni’s desire to fit in, turns precarious.
The significance of seeing Toni, a dark-skinned pre-teen Black girl navigating between several worlds and not definitively belonging to either, should not be overlooked. Last year, we saw Sciamma’s moving Girlhood, a story about Black teenage girls growing up in a tough Paris neighbourhood. It was the first time I had seen a film centred solely on the experiences of Black teenage girls. Prior to that, the surreal Beasts of the Southern Wild earned Quvenzhane Wallis an Oscar-nomination for Best Actress – the youngest nominee in history at 9 years old. Wallis’s performance is extraordinary, but the film bears traces of old stereotypes of Black children; that they are somehow as Robin Bernstein puts it in his book ‘Racial Innocence’, “always resistant, if not immune to pain” due to a perceived innate preternatural strength in Black people. When I was young, I was quite aware from early on, what the dreadful parts of me were – my hair and my skin. My skin was a tad too dark and my hair just wouldn’t grow at an ‘acceptable’ rate. “Don’t ride your bike so fast! If you fall, you’ll scar yourself and no one will marry you!” Of course, I did it anyway. To be free. Free from constraints that didn’t weigh on my brothers, or in a wider context, those that define what a girl should be doing with her time or the spaces her body should be occupying. My interests did not align with most of my friends or family. So, I spent a great deal of time traversing various social spheres for short periods of time but on the whole, was mostly alone. There have been few films focused on stories of Black womanhood, but even fewer centering the coming of age journeys of Black children. The notable backlashes against then 12 year old Amandla Stenberg as Rue in ‘The Hunger Games’ (despite her character being described as Black in the books) and Quvenzhane Wallis in the Annie remake indicates that the film industry still has a long way to go in discarding its preoccupation with what Tanehisi Coates alludes to as an “aura of blackness.” That you can include Black female characters, as long as they are not too Black.
One of the most moving sequences in The Fits involves a small but significant adventure between Toni and her new friend Beezy. We see Toni unsheathed, and able to truly delight in enjoying Beezy’s company as they take ownership of various spaces including the usually male-dominated boxing ring. When an embarrassing incident occurs, Toni reveals a new layer as a true friend and saves Breezy any further humiliation. Toni is often a silent girl, but Hightower successfully expresses to us her ongoing inner conflict between showing vulnerability and self-preservation. She allows another friend to paint her nails for her and allows herself to laugh around her new friends, often dancing shoeless. However, the eerie mystery of the outbreak plaguing the dance team is always looming and begins to escalate. At points, it appears to veer into the spiritual and magical realm as we see Toni literally draw blood in order to assimilate by piercing her ears herself. In other small but unnerving moments, we see her shed adornment as she scrapes off her gold nail polish and unpeels a false tattoo from her arm, playing with her new identity.
A recurring motif is how closely we gaze on Toni and in turn, how she observes those around her through windows, behind curtains and gaps between doors, implying a dislocation and tension between her and her surroundings. Adults are always out of focus or shown from the waist down, further fixing our attention on Toni. Holmer told Rolling Stone she is concerned that “girls [don’t] get to live on screen in the sort of complex way they do in real life.” Indeed, relishing the astonishing performance by Hightower is one of the stronger elements of Homer’s filmmaking and Paul Yee’s cinematography.
In an opportune happenstance, The Fits lands on the heels of Beyoncé’s phenomenal Lemonade album and her sister Solange’s A Seat at the Table, a pivotal moment not just in the music industry, but in pop culture as a whole. Within a larger context, the conversation of Black girls communing with one another is occurring on a global scale like never before. In The Fits, Toni is an island, but she recognises that she doesn’t have to be. Beyoncé and Solange Knowles have made deliberate choices to display the beauty of Black girls and women in their work noting that this very act is a display of marked resistance against industries that purposefully exclude them from the realm of desirability whether physically, psychologically or emotionally. When Toni finally accepts that adolescence is here, it is mesmerizing and blistering. Dance is catharsis. This film is a searing, atmospheric portrait with an extraordinary score and yet, abstract enough for the audience to interpret how they wish.