Bird Watching – Ava DuVernay’s “I Will Follow”
Where the pathetic numbers in big budget Hollywood are stagnant at best concerning female filmmakers, women in indie film continue to prove that it is the system, not a lack of ability, that keeps women from these positions of creative power. It is, of course, doubly satisfying to watch a woman of color make this point, since Hollywood’s problem with women has a partner in its problem with minority filmmakers. We got to see one of these moments on January 28, 2012, when Ava DuVernay won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival for her film Middle of Nowhere, the story of a woman dealing with life while her husband is in prison. DuVernay was the first black woman to win this prestigious prize at the festival.
I eagerly await a chance to see DuVernay’s new film, but in the meantime I took this as a great excuse to go back and check out her previous feature, I Will Follow (2011), which was recently released on DVD. DuVernay has worked for years in film publicity and marketing. She’s helmed several shorts as well as This is the Life, a feature-length documentary about a hip hop movement in Los Angeles. I Will Follow was her narrative feature debut. The film focuses on one significant day in the life of Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), who must pack up her beloved aunt’s house after the aunt’s passing from cancer. Most of us can relate to the difficult but necessary process of going through a deceased loved one’s possessions, and Maye’s feelings are familiar: grief over the person’s absence; appreciation of the memories; anger at the expectation that life must simply go on; comfort in those still around us. The film brings us close in to Maye’s emotions without ever veering into overdramatics, providing a satisfyingly real portrait of what loss can be like.
Through flashbacks and conversation, we learn a bit about Maye’s aunt, Amanda (Beverly Todd). She was the sort of strong, creative, individual woman one is lucky to know in life, and it’s not hard to see why Maye was attached to her. She was a drummer, playing rock and roll as a session musician for many years. She quizzed Maye on music trivia, particularly for her favorite band, U2. She wore bold, beautiful ensembles. And she wanted to die on her own terms: not undergoing painful treatments in a hospital, but at the peaceful house among the trees in Topanga Canyon.
Maye, having always been close to Amanda and then lived with her and cared for her the last year of her life, processes her death in a much different way than Fran (Michole Briana White), Amanda’s daughter. Fran comes off as a cold and closed-off woman, concerned with who will get some of Amanda’s valuables. But we learn more about her attitude as we see how her relationship with her mother was strained, where Maye’s was easy; where Maye had a cool aunt to admire, Fran had a mother who was frequently away, doing her work as a musician. The disparity builds to a powerful scene of confrontation, the kind of letting loose that happens with family when one person’s silent pain becomes too much. Both actresses do very good work invoking a lifetime of difference that might never be solved.
Maye has other visitors throughout the day, from movers to friends who come by to toast Amanda. Phone calls to two men in her life move the story’s focus from Maye’s relationship with Amanda to what caring for her for a year meant for Maye’s own life. In a way, the film is about revealing and concluding a journey that already took place before the film began, rather than constructing that arc through the events of the film. It works well. The film is a bit lyrical and follows a loose structure; don’t expect a second act twist building to a third act climax and an explosive conclusion. This is one day; and the day after will only be different because this day has been survived.
I am not an expert on black cinema, but it is always a pleasure to watch a film that is stereotype-free, in regards to any group of people. These are full-fledged characters, fighting through a messy time in their lives. Though the film is not perfect—some scenes are a bit cheesy for my taste, and the background music is oddly distracting—the characters and their relationships are strong in the way I wish they were in every film. As a first narrative feature, done on an indie budget, the film can only be categorized as a success. It makes me look forward even more to seeing DuVernay’s new film, and where her career takes her after that Sundance win.