Taking Agency with Toni – Celebrating Young, Black Girls in Cinema and Beyond

In #EIFF, Commentary, Features, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Sam Prance

Too often young girls are dismissed. Too often young, black girls are dismissed.

Defining myself, as opposed to being defined by others, is one of the most difficult challenges I face.Carol Moseley Braun

I am white. My boyfriend is mixed race and he identifies as Créole. He grew up in Réunion – an island in which it is far more common to identify as Créole than by the colour of you skin. Then, having moved to France and later the UK, he was told that he was black. With that, he began to experience many of the microaggressions that black people face in the West. Ballet instructors would ask him to straighten his hair for performances, ‘friends’ would and still do assume that he was not ‘well-read’/’cultured’, people would ‘congratulate’ him on dating someone white. He wrote more on this here: Expose Yourself.

Living with Bryan, I am not just witness to these microaggressions but I am also very aware of the fact that one day we will have children who will no doubt face these same microaggressions too. Furthermore, if we have daughters, they will likewise bear the brunt of sexism. We will raise young, black girls who will be dismissed on account of their age, race and gender. Selfishly, because of this, I’ve both consciously and subconsciously begun making a more concerted effort to look beyond the white, male culture that I’ve been brought up to know and appreciate and to start seeking out various forms of black female culture that I may have otherwise ignored. GuGu Mbatha-Raw, Kamaiyah, Zora Neale Hurston, Teyonah Parris, Claudia Rankine – I’ve begun to listen to voices that white people and white systems too often dismiss.

Of course this sort of thing sounds, and is to a certain extent, very self-righteous. What’s more, this world hardly needs another white person masturbating over having some sort of vague understanding of racial politics. This sort of thing proves that I, like so many white people, am a dick. Much like the ‘think of your daughters’ feminist argument, this ‘think of your potential black daughters and boyfriends’ argument for anti-racism is disgusting. It should not take familial ties for us to listen to those different from us and to care about the prejudice that others face. People should not be defined as extensions of anyone but themselves. They should not have their agencies stripped from them.

The Fits is depressingly rare for a film in that it centres on the agency of a young, black girl. In this post-Lemonade world it’s easy to assume, as someone white, that black women have a space in pop culture. Seeing Blue, Amandla, Zendayah and so many more black girls confidently pose in Beyoncé’s greatest work to date makes it seem as though, just for a second, young, black girls are celebrated in this world. However, as Lemonade testifies – the sad reality is that they aren’t. All too often it takes someone of Beyoncé’s stature to provide a space for herself and other black women in mainstream culture that otherwise isn’t there. The Fits, in celebrating young, black girls, fucks with the homogeny of cinema simply in existing.

I went to see The Fits with our FILM, THEATRE & TV Editor, Hannah Oliver, and the first thing that she commented on was the fact that this film works primarily with a cast of children. So often children are stripped of their agencies – dismissed as ignorant – and yet this film is dedicated to the agencies not just of children and teenagers but the agencies of young, black, female children and teenagers. So much so, in fact, that the few adult characters that feature in The Fits are literally faded out into the background.

The child that this film centres on is Toni (Royalty Hightower), a young, black tomboy, who trains in wrestling with her brother at her local community centre, only to become enamoured by the all black, female drill team that also trains there. She then joins the drill team and becomes caught up in the hierarchies of the group, trying to fit in, whilst also trying to retain a sense of self at the same time. After befriending one of the other young members of the team, Beezy (Alexis Neblet), girls within the drill team begin breaking out into uncontrollable fits, one by one, resulting in fainting. Whilst at first these fits are met with fear, they soon become a sort of rite of passage within the group and Toni is forced to consider how far she really wishes to go in order to remain a member of the team. Can she be herself, whilst part of a collective?

Dilemmas such as Toni’s face many of us in groups of all sorts – work spheres, school cliques, gym classes. All of these can consciously and subconsciously force us to hide and adapt parts of ourselves in order to fit in. As a femme gay man, I often find myself holding back shades of my self in order to be more palatable to a heteronormative world. As a tomboy, Toni likewise finds herself holding back shades of herself in her new social setting. As she befriends Beezy and some of the other girls in the drill group, she starts imitating them almost without question – painting her nails with them and even self-piercing her ears in an attempt to be more like them. Perhaps most obviously she literally imitates the girls in picking up their drill routines. These routines at first seem unnatural to her but soon become effortless, almost an extension of her being.

As the film develops so does Toni and to highlight this, Anna Rose Holmer, the film’s writer, director and producer, predominantly switches the camera between Toni’s face and gaze. We witness Toni as she grows but we also witness what she witnesses and thus grow with her. What’s more, Paul Yee (the cinematographer) never rushes his shots so that, even without dialogue, we are confronted with Toni’s emotions and thoughts in beautiful, lingering moments that round the film. For example, after piercing her ears, Toni looks at her reflection in the mirror both proud and in question of what she has done. In her depiction of Toni, Royalty Hightower effortlessly conveys the conflictual mixture of feelings that Toni beholds at once. Her ability as an actress far surpassing her years and provoking us to consider times in which we may have been both proud and in question of our actions. In this moment, Hightower forces us to consider whether the pride of being a part of a group is worth the sacrifice of losing a sense of self.

Interestingly, Toni’s ears soon become infected and she removes her earrings as a result. Whilst infections are common with piercings, Holmer’s choice to include this in the film, symbolises how Toni’s body physically rejects the conformity in which she is taking part, as it does when she begins dancing drill. However, unlike with piercings, Toni continues drill throughout the film and her agency here is clear. She takes ownership of wanting to learn drill but she also takes ownership of not wanting to adopt the same look as the other girls in the group. She establishes herself both as an individual and as a team member. She reminds us that it is possible to simultaneously be oneself and part of a collective – however blurred the lines may be.

And it’s not just its characters whose agencies are utilised and examined within The Fits. In a Q&A for the film after its EIFF showing, Rose Holmer, who is white, mentioned how the Q-Kidz Dance Team, who are all black and play the film’s drill team, adapted and developed the script themselves during filming so that it rang true to them. In search of an honest film, Rose Holmer ensured that the agencies of these young black women and girls were not ignored in its creation. It’s a brilliant directorial decision as the film rings true throughout because of it but it’s also brilliant in that it’s an active, all too rare example of young, black women’s voices being heard and not dismissed. It’s an example of what should be the norm but isn’t.

We may never quite understand what ‘the fits’ of the film are; Rose Holmer mentioned that they’re most common among teenage girls and happened fairly regularly in medieval Europe (check out dancing mania‘s Wikipedia entry) but we do most likely understand the various sensations of belonging, social rejection and individuality that Toni and the other characters of The Fits experience. We are called upon to celebrate Toni and question ourselves alongside her. We are called upon to celebrate young, black girls and relate to them.

In a world that ignores young, black girls – this film couldn’t be more important.

Sam Prance

Sam is the Editor-in-Chief of PTL. He likes adapting surnames into brand names and pretending to be professional. His possibility model is Janet Mock and he turns to Beyoncé interviews for guidance on the regular. Sam tries to make out that he has his shit together but more often than not can be found crying watching Desperate Housewives reruns. Some episodes are really sad okay.

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(Image: YouTube)