“Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation,” Beyoncé commands with drill-sergeant aplomb in “Formation,” a galvanizing declaration of power whose central stanza instantly and ineradicably marched its way into our pop cultural lexicon this past February. Although easily misconstrued as a sumptuous and self-serving solidification of Beyoncé’s domination, the barking intensity of the track, with its bounce beat and spitfire lyrics (“Prove to me you got some coordination… Slay, trick, or you get eliminated…”), suggest something much larger than personal promotion: the urgent and inherent power of black women’s synchronized unification.
Anna Rose Holmer’s majestic and mysterious new independent drama The Fits is also, ultimately, about the power of a united front, this time within the context of adolescent black womanhood. Holmer’s feature narrative debut features an all-black cast and stars the extraordinarily assured ten-year-old actress-dancer Royalty Hightower as Toni, a tiny Cincinnati tomboy who ditches her afterschool boxing hobby to dance with a competitive all-girls drill team, played by the real-life Cincinnati community children’s group, Q-Kidz.
But as soon as Toni joins up, her fellow teammates begin to experience debilitating fainting spells that appear obliquely linked to Toni, who remains altogether untouched by these fits but also somewhat stimulated by them. She becomes a noticeably better and more confident dancer with each occurrence, as if invisibly absorbing each girl’s individual power. But she also risks fully alienating herself from those around her, tirelessly pushing herself past her own edges and limitations until she finally stands alone.
The Fits is an entrancing experiment that accomplishes something largely untested in contemporary cinema: finding psychological import and emotional engagement through the sheer physicality of its onscreen inhabitants. It’s a new kind of dance picture, assembled with visual imagination and thematic sophistication by Holmer, who previously produced the Tribeca documentary Ballet 422, which intimately followed emerging choreographer Justin Peck's stressful rise through the New York City Ballet.
I talked to Holmer about the risk and rarity of The Fits' very existence, her breathtaking leading lady, communal moviemaking, and why film itself has always been a uniquely-qualified medium to interpret the art of dance.
The type of original, regionally-specific indie that The Fits represents is seldom made, even less so with such a daringly cryptic story at its center or a predominantly black ensemble comprised of newcomers and non-professionals. How did this project take shape? What attracted you to this particular milieu?
I was reading about some cases of hysterics and it’s something that I’ve just been fascinated by. It’s definitely used allegorically in creative work, particularly about females and adolescents in other genres as well. But the seed for me really started because I had been working a lot with New York City Ballet, in mostly non-fiction film. And I started to think about reimagining these cases of hysterics as kind of subconscious choreography and moving [it] into the dance genre, which was my first pitch. Like, What if we made a strange dance film about these episodes?
And I started musing on that. I brought on my producer, Lisa Kjerulff, who also came on as a writer. And then Saela Davis, who’s [the] editor and also a writer on the film. And we were really looking for both a way to make this film and a way to experiment. None of us had written a narrative feature before. We were really focused on the visual and dance elements of the film. But it started out not with drill nor in Cincinnati.
One of the early ideas for the film was that we wanted to work with girls from the same dance team. We were looking for a large team and a dance form that could not only be expressed on film but that could also hold narrative weight. And what I love about drill, in particularly in dance battles, which you see frequently throughout the film, is the ability to fold in mundane movements into the choreography. You see the hair-flips and showing off [the] nails and getting into a fight with another girl or laughing at someone’s mistake. Those are all built into the choreographies.
We worked with Mariah and Chariah Jones to incorporate ideas and movements. We were able to pull some of the movements of boxing into drill sequences and etcetera. But then there’s this kind of inherent call and response within the dance battle, in which the captain signals to her team, with a gesture, what call they’re going to respond with. And I really love that body-mirroring that’s built into the form itself. So the Q-Kidz team was the only one we ever asked to formally be a part of the film and then, once they came on, it was a deep collaboration with writing for specific locations and allowing the cast to also be authors and rewrite their own dialogue. In approaching them to collaborate, it became specifically about that world and those dancers.
Royalty Hightower is marvelous in this…
[Laughs] I know!
She’s so comfortable in front of the camera, even amid the grueling physicality of the part, that I’m a bit shocked that this is only her screen debut. What was the casting process like for Toni and how did you find Royalty?
For casting, we only opened up the parts to Q-Kidz. There’s a couple hundred girls in circulation on the team. In reality, we cast forty-five of them in the film as dancers [and] as co-stars. Royalty is also a part of the Q-Kidz. She’s been dancing with them since she was six. We found her on day one of casting. She was the eighth girl we saw. And I’d heard so many horror stories about casting kids and how exhausting and lengthy and challenging that can be. But with Royalty, there was an immediate sense of knowing that she had “it.” [Laughs] Whatever “it” is, Royalty has a lot of it. She’s incredible. I mean, she’s so patient, so generous, and she has a capacity to listen and engage and be active in silence, which is required.
Toni, in the script, is a very challenging part. There’s a lot of prose that she needs to carry in her face and through her body and it’s a very demanding role. The way I describe it is seeing a musician perform and wanting to jam with them. I really wanted to collaborate with Royalty and what we were able to achieve together and grow together in this process was just… really inspiring to me. She’s incredible— [Laughs] She’s incredible. But she’s also an actor. Royalty is not like Toni. She’s an actor with an extreme gift.
The Fits is the rare American film where the dialogue, which is already sparse, seems to barely matter over the images, movement, and spaces. How deliberate was the effort to scale back the dialogue during scripting and filming?
We approached the cinematic voice of this film very early on through visuals and a very particular idea about sound design. Both movement and sound were what we were interested in and put on the page. We put in very bare-bones dialogue in the first draft of the script with the idea that we would collaborate with the actors. But so much of what our attention and focus was on was a communication that was happening beyond words. We really see it as a dance film from frame one to closing credits. So what we’re exploring is movement and tone.
Some people, like Royalty, crossed out quite a few of their lines. She was like, “I’m already saying this through my body language. You don’t need it, it’s redundant,” because she’s amazing. Some actors added quite a bit, like the character of [Alexis Neblett’s] Beezy, who’s overflowing with ideas and inspirations and joy and freedom and that comes out through her bursts of dialogue. It was a collaborative process in terms of dialogue, but our voice as filmmakers has very little to do with what we’re saying with words. It’s so much more about how we use our bodies to tell the world about ourselves.
In keeping with the film’s elliptical nature, the “fits” are never fully explained and though there is a direct and visible link to Toni, there is major room for interpretation when it comes to their origin and larger purpose, which are only ever hinted at. How important was it for you that there be no clear-cut explanations?
It was very important for us that it never be formally resolved within the world. Often, in the real cases that we studied, that’s how it is. It remains a mystery and we wanted to protect that. In the film, everything you’re receiving as an audience is filtered through Toni’s perspective, including the fits. So they really do transform as her understanding of them transforms. They’re very scary in the beginning, very real. And then they start to morph. And we left some of them off-screen so we could embrace their impact on Toni, which was what was important to us.
We also worked with a modern dancer, Celia Rowlson-Hall, to design the fits with the girls. We gave them no visual reference for what a fit was or should look like. We gave them some keywords in the script. We talked about triggers, where in the body they were coming from. But each girl designed her fit with Celia in isolation. That’s why they look so different. They are very individual moments.
There are so many moments where Toni is captured in the pure act of looking, without any explanation, whether it be at the boxers or the dancers or the larger world around her. In seeing this, it struck me that we scarcely see the female gaze evoked so simply or positioned so centrally within feature films, especially from the vantage of a young, black, female protagonist. I’m curious about whether or not the female gaze played into the conception of the film in any crucial or conscious way for you.
The female gaze… is what I carry around with me everyday. [Laughs] But, you know, our D.P., Paul Yee, was a huge force in breaking down how lensing could help us enter into this world through Toni’s point of view. And I think the film really benefited from these very varied voices and what it meant to digest the fact that each of us carries such a singular vantage point. And we decided, from the script phase, that this was going to be a deep exercise in placing the audience in this one girl’s point of view. And so every choice we made filtered through that. The sound design was a huge part of that. The lensing was a huge part of that. There is a real elegance in the simplicity of allowing her to look without combatting too much, until that process of looking changes, quite drastically. A very simple act changes as she changes because her point of view is growing and shifting. So, ours as the audience does as well.
Before The Fits, you worked primarily as a producer and cinematographer, among other behind-the-scenes positions. When did you know that you wanted to direct and how has finding acclaim this year as a director changed your vision for your career overall? Do you hope to move into directing full-time?
I have had a pretty amazing journey in terms of crewing. And cinematography was really my foundation. It was what I went to school to study. I worked my way up in the camera department and, in terms of leadership on set, I really learned a lot from creative producers. And I love the role of creative producing. People don’t recognize how important creative producers are in the process and how much they give, especially in the independent film space. And so I learned a lot from watching those leaders on set who really saw filmmaking as a collaborative art. Producers really are curating a team and they’re a team leader in a different way from being a director.
That being said, I definitely feel like I’ve taken from that and, through directing, have felt the most articulate that I’ve ever felt in any position on set. I would love to continue doing that with the philosophy of creative producing and really seeing filmmaking as a collaborative process and not, in any means, as a top-down way of working.
In terms of when I knew I wanted to direct, I don’t know. At school, it wasn’t something I was really interested in. I did some projects and then I did direct a feature-length documentary film called Twelve Ways to Sunday and learned a lot through that process. But when we were developing The Fits, it surprised me that I wanted to direct. When we got this grant from Venice Biennale, the process became really quick. There were only eleven months between our first draft and our world premiere. So it was an all-hands-on-deck, full-time thing. And I remember telling some of my peers that we were going into this and it almost felt like I had to tell everyone, “And, by the way, I’m directing it.” It was a thing I had to announce. And I think it still surprises me, but the process of making The Fits has been so creatively satisfying for me and I believe that stems from our philosophy of sharing the process, opening it up, and being very collaboration-driven.
As someone well-versed in capturing movement on film in both The Fits and the last film you made as producer, Ballet 422, what do you think cinema reveals about dance that no other medium can?
You know that feeling when you see someone getting off a bus and their body language as they disembark… you can feel everything about that experience. I think we carry so much and communicate so much through our bodies. And there’s a really kind of guttural connection to that, as simple as seeing someone smile and wanting to smile. We share so much through small gestures that we make everyday and, for me, cinema is a language to express that because it can put you in the point of view of another body like no other medium. There’s traditional dance on film but I’m also interested in this other space, which is focused on just how we communicate, and how to express that through such a vibrant and living art form.
This interview has been edited and condensed.