Buzz can sometimes be misleading. But in the case of writer-director Ava DuVernay’s first feature-length narrative, I Will Follow, the buzz, both online and off, is well-deserved. The beautifully done film is an assured and compelling meditation on love, death, loss and, ultimately, life. As was the case with Barry Jenkins’ Medicine For Melancholy and Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us, I Will Follow expands depictions of black humanity by serving up well-rounded, history-laden characters. Many films flatten characters into broad types, but DuVernay’s film allows for character complexity without relinquishing any of its black sensibility.
Based on DuVernay’s personal experiences, the film follows Salli Richardson-Whitfield’s (above, left, with Omari Hardwick) nuanced portrayal of Maye Fisher as she packs up the home she shared with her recently deceased Aunt Amanda. During the course of this single day, she’s visited by a dozen people who, in their own ways, help her grieve, reconcile what the loss of her aunt means and find a way to move on with her life.
DuVernary’s assurance as a writer and director is abundantly displayed. I Will Follow comes in at a lean 83 minutes, and she effectively uses the “ticking clock” device — Maye has to have the house packed up and vacated in 24 hours — to keep the momentum in this quiet story. As well, the shots into the dressing mirror that signal flashbacks are handled such that the transitions from present to past and back are seamless.
The actors turn in fine performances throughout. The relationship between Maye and her cousin Fran (Michole White) is rife with resentments. When their smoldering anger finally erupts, both Richardson-Whitfield and White play the scene with a restraint that lets the audience intuit the grief that grips them both. Fran may come off like a bourgie bitch, but we can’t help but understand that she, like Maye, is in tremendous pain. And it’s done without the neck-rolling and histrionics that have become synonymous with black films that play for broad appeal.
A music subplot serves to add depth to what might’ve been a routine story of grieving family members. The aunt was a renegade. DuVernay tweaks the typical black middle-class family narrative, all about job security and respectability, by making the aunt a drummer, who, despite her success as a session musician, yearned to start her own heavy-metal band. It’s not a huge piece of the story. However, given — as I’ve argued elsewhere — that “rock” is the one four-letter word black folks are reluctant to say, this bit of history reveals a pleasantly unexpected aspect of the character.
Where the film potentially strays into type is around class. It would be simplistic to say that the key upper-middle-class characters are uptight and emotionally unavailable (Maye’s boyfriend, Evan, played by Blair Underwood, and Fran) while the working-class characters are loyal and supportive. The appearance of Maye’s two industry friends — a black gay couple who pull up in an expensive sports car — keeps this from being such a clear-cut dichotomy.
I also wished the link between the film and its title were more clear. U2 fans will recognize it as a song from the band’s debut album, 1980′s Boy. Lead singer Bono wrote it for his mother, who died when he was 14, and it is about the unconditional love between mother and child. Knowing this, one is left with more questions about Maye and her relationship with her mother: If Amanda, her aunt, loved her unconditionally, what are we to infer, if anything, about Maye’s feelings and admiration for her own mother?
I Will Follow challenges us to face the enormity of loss that death brings. In this case, for Maye, it’s not just losing Amanda, but all the different things she meant to everyone, all the vestiges of her life. Her death brings lack of closure between a mother and daughter, along with the loss of an aunt, the house, a part of family history, lovers, perhaps even the relationship between two cousins. The film respects both its story and the audience’s intelligence, with no melodrama.
The other interesting aspect of this film is the way that it’s coming to theaters. It is the first film to be released through AFFRM (pronounced “affirm”), the African-American Film Releasing Movement, an initiative that DuVernay, a longtime publicist in Los Angeles, spearheaded. AFFRM leverages the infrastructure, relationships and pooled dollars of black film festivals around the country to get films in theaters. I Will Follow launched in five cities last weekend and, based on its strong box-office performance, is expanding to 22 screens in 15 cities this weekend. A full list of theaters can be found here. A second film will be released by AFFRM in August.
This review was originally posted on TheRoot.com.