Why The Fits Is The Perfect Movie About Right Now.
On October 7, 2008, Variety published its review of W., the upcoming George W. Bush biopic by filmmaker Oliver Stone. Controversial biopics of American presidents weren’t exactly new territory for Stone; in 1995, the director had tackled the legacy of Richard Nixon with Nixon, a film that at least one Nixon historian publicly referred to as “nonsense.” Now Stone had returned with a profile of a sitting president, one whose replacement would be elected by the public mere weeks after W.’s release date. According to Variety, the immediacy of the film was one of the things holding it back.
“Oliver Stone’s unusual and inescapably interesting “W.” feels like a rough draft of a film it might behoove him to remake in 10 or 15 years…. it’s questionable how wide a public will pony up to immerse itself in a story that still lacks an ending.”
Variety was right. W. placed fourth in its opening weekend – just behind the blockbuster third weekend of Beverley Hills Chihuahua — and failed to connect with critics and audiences alike. While we might choose to pull any number of lessons from W.’s failure, there is one message that seems to ring out loud and clear: it isn’t easy to turn current events into the kind of movie that people want to see. Without the benefit of at least a little distance, it’s nearly impossible to make a movie about current events that will ring true to all kinds of audiences.
Why bring this up all these years later? Because I think The Fits just showed us the way.
The Fits both is and is not a fictional retelling of the Flint water crisis. Much like the ongoing Michigan scandal, The Fits paints a portrait of an African American population crippled by a mysterious illness in a Midwestern state. One local dance team is hit especially hard; students collapse mid-rehearsal, wracked by tremors and convulsions that frighten their teammates and threaten to keep them from participating in regional competitions. Just down the hall, the boys’ boxing club remains unaffected, insulated from the disease by their regular shipments of bottled water. As the girls practice their dance routines and gossip about the recent slate of illnesses, adults move quietly in the background, testing faucets and whispering words like “water” and “sick”. The Fits never comes out and tells us that the water is causing the seizures. It doesn’t really need to.
Despite this, though, The Fits has very little interest in telling a political story. The film focuses instead on Toni, a middle school girl who trains at boxing with the boys and helps her older brother close down the school gym each evening. Despite her reputation as a Tomboy, Toni is fascinated with the all-grades dance troupe, skipping out on sparring matches with her brother to run through her dance routine in a quiet corner of the school. We sense more than see that Toni is standing on the precipice of adolescence, and her first small forays into adulthood see her prodding at the boundaries of her own sense of gender. Toni pierces her ears, puts on nail polish, and endlessly practices the gentler moments of her routine. She is also fascinated by the sexual conversations the older girls have around her.
Had director Anna Rose Holmer and her crew aimed only to capture the fear American citizens can have towards basic resources, The Fits would still likely have been a fine movie. Royalty Hightower is an incredible discovery as Toni, but the entire cast – especially Alexis Neblett as her friend Beezy – help give the community a face and voice all its own. Still, that type of film is a risky proposition. The water crisis in Flint is far from over; state officials can only guess at the number of children affected by the contamination, while at least one medical researcher suggests that it could be generations before the full impact of the water crisis is felt. Even a well-meaning narrative based on the water crisis could find itself dated as humanitarian groups work to untangle the full extent of the disaster. At best, your film is tied to an incomplete understanding of a specific time and place; at worst, your film is released before the full extent of the damage is known.
Instead of telling a good political story, The Fits tells a great personal one. Holmer sets her story against the backdrop of a water crisis but wisely keeps the parallels to Flint buried in the background of the film. The unease that Toni feels regarding her own perfect health – the way she unconsciously measures herself against those who have already shown symptoms of the illness – brings to mind the passage into puberty, not poison, but Holmer wisely identifies the common language between the two. Nothing that happens to Toni and her friends needs to be told through the lens of an environmental crisis, but the apprehension each girl feels towards their changing bodies brings out the best in both narratives. We have come to understand the water crisis not by Michigan politics or local humanitarian efforts, but by seeing how it is woven into one girl’s coming-of-age story.
How do you make a movie about current events? The answer, then, is this: tell another type of story entirely, one unaffected by historical specificity, and gently layer your message back in as subtext. Oliver Stone did not need to tell a story specifically about George W. Bush to condemn his actions as president; he may have found the audience more receptive to a more allegorical political narrative that happened to touch on the issues that Bush faced in the White House. Similarly, Anna Rose Holmer did not need to make a movie about the Flint water crisis to convey the full depth of the situation. She simply needed to make a movie about people we care about and poison the water just a little in the background. The Fits should be required viewing for any filmmaker anyone looking to tell a story about today.