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Out of ‘The Fits’ and into ‘Formation’

‘The Fits’ is a coming-of-age story and an allegory for the times

This is the second piece in a semiregular series examining how Beyoncé’s Lemonade influences the way we see other works of art. You can read the first story, on Lemonade and Roots, here.

Anna Rose Holmer never set out to direct an allegory of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, or a film that could easily serve as an coming-of-age prequel chapter to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. And yet that’s exactly what she’s done in The Fits.

Holmer’s first feature film follows Toni (Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old tomboy who finds her way on to her community center’s dance team after years of devotedly emulating her older brother, a standout boxer. As Toni becomes more deeply involved in dance and moves away from boxing, a mysterious illness — the titular fits — sweeps through the dance team. The boxers, all boys, are unaffected.

The director’s phone started buzzing incessantly the night before the Super Bowl, when Beyoncé’s Formation music video dropped.

All because of this:

Above: a scene from "The Fits." Below: Beyoncé and her dancers in "Formation."

Above: a scene from The Fits.
Below: Beyoncé and her dancers in Formation.

Oscilloscope Laboratories, YouTube

There was the world’s biggest pop star in her newest music video, heavily referencing drill team culture, and getting down with her squad of superbad black chicks in a drained-out swimming pool. By happenstance, there was a similar scene in The Fits, which debuted internationally at the Venice Film Festival in Italy in September, and made its domestic debut at Sundance in January.

“When it came out, almost everyone on our crew sent me a screenshot,” Holmer said over iced coffees at City Bakery in New York. “It’s strange, right? I don’t know how stuff like that happens. It’s amazing. I’m a fan of the director of Formation, Melina Matsoukas.”

Formation is a triumphant coda to Lemonade, the visual album Beyoncé debuted in April with an hourlong film on HBO. While Lemonade plunges into the depths of disappointment and forgiveness, Formation is a celebration of black girl brilliance and resilience. The dance sequence in The Fits, where we see the drill team holding court in a drained-out swimming pool, serves a similar purpose.

It represents a sort of specialness that can’t be quashed, buttressed by the historical weight of the days when the Hotel Last Frontier in Las Vegas drained its swimming pool because actress Dorothy Dandridge dared to dip her foot in it. Because Dandridge was black, racists dictated that she was “unclean” and therefore unfit for the pool. Take away the water, and the swimming pool becomes a stage for one sequin-bedecked, choreographed expression of YOU MAD? — a joyous, unbossed and unbought thumb in the eye of bigotry.

It’s a moment when Toni fully embraces herself and the possibility of what she can be. Toni, whom Hightower renders beautifully with a charming, contemplative performance, has spent so much time with her brother and his friends that she is at home in the masculine while the feminine feels foreign, even suspicious. The boxing gym and the practice space for the drill team where they spend so many hours after school are separated by double doors with narrow, lengthwise windows.

As Toni traverses between the two worlds, she wrestles with her identity. She’s an awkward dancer with no natural instinct for rhythm. Her movements are jerky and latent. This might be the best element of Hightower’s performance. In real life, her teammates on Cincinnati’s Q-Kidz dance team from the city’s West End, the team that’s featured in the film, call Hightower Sasha Fierce. She’s a star. Holmer had Hightower work with a modern dancer who developed a routine specifically to make Toni look like a poor dancer.

But despite her lack of innate acuity, Toni keeps plugging away, falling deeper into the world of dance, even as she tries to draw a distinction between herself and the girls experiencing weird, unexplainable spasms.

The story of the fits sounds like something you would learn about on a Saturday afternoon via Ira Glass’ reedy monotone. It’s easy enough to imagine him saying, What happens when the members of Cincinnati dance troupe are mysteriously felled, one by one, by an epidemic of what seem like epileptic seizures? Is it the water? Is it puberty? Is it all in their heads? Today on our show: mass hysteria and psychogenic illness. From WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life. Staaay. With us.

It started with Holmer’s interest in developing a story that touched on mass psychogenic illness. In her research, she learned more about medieval dancing mania, which some have attributed to lead poisoning. When Holmer picked the Q-Kidz, an all-black dance team, for the film, that added new wrinkles. This thing has been happening that no one can explain, and there doesn’t seem to be much urgency behind solving it. At one point a Nice White Lady from the Cincinnati government comes to the community center to tell the girls the drinking water is definitely not the cause of the fits.

Above: Royalty Hightower as Toni in "The Fits." Below: Beyoncé in a scene from "Formation."

Above: Royalty Hightower (center) as Toni in The Fits.
Below: Beyoncé (center) in a scene from Formation.

Oscilloscope Laboratories/YouTube

She is met with looks of skepticism. Later her claim is confirmed when the girls start drinking from the boys’ fountains in the boxing gym, and the fits continue all the same. Meanwhile, the boys remain unaffected.

When Holmer and co-writers Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff were working on the script, the people of Flint were being poisoned by drinking water from the Flint River that was causing lead to leach from the pipes into the water supply. But Holmer, Davis, and Kjeruff didn’t know. It hadn’t hit the national conscience yet. The ties are completely coincidental.

“I haven’t totally grappled with the implications of systematic failing of the people in Flint and how that is part of our film yet,” Holmer said. “That’s hard for me. In the film, we did want [the fits] to function in a way where there’s never an answer. There’s never relief. People look away.”

Holmer, Davis and Kjeruff also offer a beautifully sincere look at what it means to realize, as a girl, that you’re not a carbon copy of your older brother. Holmer, Davis, and Kjeruff all went through similar experiences during adolescence as they began to separate from their brothers and search for comfort and belonging in communities of girls. “With my brother, for so long I wanted to be him,” Holmer said. “He was my role model. But there was a point when I realized that my future wasn’t to be a clone of my brother … I don’t think Toni is that self-aware at the beginning of the film. She becomes self-aware. I remember I was a stick, and this cello came out of nowhere and I was like, ‘what is this?!’ ”

We see this personal connection to the story rendered in Toni’s purple shirts, which gradually become more fitted to her body as the film progresses and she experiments with expressing her femininity. Purple, as it turns out, is Holmer’s favorite color. When we met, she was wearing a purple dress with black leggings and orange sandals.

In a feature on Roots actress Emayatzy Corinealdi, I mentioned how Lemonade is useful as a prism for examining other works about black women and girls. It applies here, too. It’s not just the obvious parallels, such as the swimming pool scene or Toni’s braided pigtails that evoke imagery of Beyoncé in Formation, and before that, Erykah Badu.

If the fits are lemons, caused by metaphorical lead poisoning, then Toni’s amazing closing sequence is lemonade.

“You cannot watch the film today in America and not read it through the lens of Flint,” Holmer said. “That’s the amazing thing about creating art in any way, that you go in it with one intention focus and it lives. Who knows how the film will be read in 10 years? The idea that every audience is bringing their own personal trauma to the screen — the fits are so loosely defined in a way. It is a performance of trauma, and so when audiences digest it, they bring so much of their own selves to the film.”

The Fits opens June 10 in Los Angeles and Cincinnati, and June 24 in Washington, D.C. The film will continue to open in theaters throughout the country this summer and is currently showing in New York.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.