“It Follows” and Representation

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I loved It Follows so much! It was such an inventive concept for a horror movie. Everywhere that there’s criticism, people are complaining that there’s little to no originality in film these days, at least not in Hollywood. I’m also feeling a fair amount of remake-fatigue, and It Follows was so refreshing and frightening! There were some genuinely breathtaking, non-cliche scares in this movie. I watched it on Netflix after putting some kids that I was babysitting to bed, and after the credits rolled I was creeped out walking around the dark house by myself.

So the film is original and frightening. It’s also well-acted. It does follow the well-trod formula of featuring a gang of virile teenagers go up against an unstoppable supernatural killing machine, but unlike a lot of lesser movies, the actors aren’t playing annoying and exaggerated stock characters. Their fear and their reactions to the situations they find themselves in follow naturally from the narrative. One thing that happens when a horror movie (or any movie) is well-plotted and well-acted is that you mentally take the place of the protagonists and try to calculate your own courses of action and your own chances of survival in the situation. I was doing this for the entirety of It Follows, and I kept coming back to, “Oh shit, I would be fucked! I would have died right there. I would just give up and let it kill me at this point. I’m too tired.” At least for me, that’s part of the fun of a horror movie. Just like fantasy and sci-fi, the genre lets you live out a (terrifying) adventure from the safety of a couch cushion.

I’m super late to this party, as I am to most parties, literal and figurative. It Follows premiered at Cannes in May 2014. It was a breakout hit for writer/director David Robert Mitchell and was picked up by Radius-TWC, receiving a successful limited release followed by a wide release in March 2015. That was over two years ago. I just watched it on Netflix this past weekend, in May of 2017. Yeah, I’m a derp. I grew up waiting 3-6 months after a movie release to see it at the dollar theatre. Old habits die hard.

As I sat in a living room that didn’t belong to me, enjoying this wonderful film, I only had one little hangup. It was all white people. Okay, before someone goes correcting me, there were a few black people. There’s a neighbor lady in the beginning. There’s a teacher somewhere in the middle of the movie. When the kids start driving to a “rough part of town” the transition is marked by a bunch of abandoned houses and a bunch of black guys standing on the side of the road. (Ouch.) Towards the end of the movie, a bunch of different families are shown in hospital rooms, and one of them is a black family. So, that’s it. The rest of the movie is pure lily-white suburbia. What made this so painful was the fact that I loved this movie so much. I want to write a movie like this one. I want to direct a movie like this one. I want to be in a movie like this one. Representation is important, because it gives people role models and inspiration. What It Follows modeled for me is that I can be an extra and maybe have like three speaking lines if I’m lucky.

I want to make it clear that I’m not dragging or blaming the director/screenwriter, the producers or the casting director. I’m not proposing some sort of film casting affirmative action. The director is free to make the movie that reflects his artistic vision. It’s just hard when you love a piece of art, but you’re cognizant of the fact that the creator’s artistic vision isn’t very diverse.

I loved this film. I don’t think people should boycott it. I don’t think people should call out David Robert Mitchell. It Follows was filmed in and around Detroit, Michigan, and the feel of the city plays a large role in the story, as I mentioned earlier huge tonal shifts in the story are signaled by whether the characters are in upper middle-class suburbs, more blue collar suburbs or run-down sketchy neighborhoods. David Robert Mitchell’s IMDb page tells me that he was born in Clawson, a city in Michigan that is part of the Detroit metropolitan area. Interestingly enough, there is a point in the movie where the main characters discuss the accepted boundary line of 8-Mile Road (I assume, the very same one that Eminem made famous), between areas considered safe and unsafe, and how their parents forbade them from crossing it when they were younger. So the director makes an intentional choice to point out some of the politics of the area, but not to go any deeper than the brief mention. Honestly, that’s completely his choice. The movie is not about disparity and segregation in the Detroit area. It’s a very well-done movie about a scary-ass demon monster thing chasing down some teenagers who are actually pretty encouragingly normal-looking (not irritatingly perfect Aphrodites and Adonises).

Probably the only reason that the moment stuck out to me is that I’m a black woman who was dismayed by not seeing someone who looks like me in a story that I loved so much. There’s a fatigue that builds up in people of color from constantly watching and entering white spaces. Even as I sit writing this essay/review, I’m in a packed Wicker Park coffee shop where I’m one of only two or three people of color. I want to be clear, it’s not a dislike of resentment of white people. It’s just a fear that you don’t belong, because it’s so hard to always be the only one. White people can’t understand how hard it is to be the only one. Well, maybe not unless you’re Eminem.

So, it’s complicated to know how to fix this problem, because it doesn’t seem to be anyone did on purpose. They say art imitates life, and if David Robert Mitchell had a blue collar upbringing in an overwhelmingly white Detroit suburb, that’s definitely true in this case. I guess I should correct myself, someone did do this on purpose. Generations of racist white people put in place social structures that were designed to keep people of color separate from privileged white enclaves, to keep people of color subjugated and relegated to certain places in society. Those systems are still doing their job. When I leave Wicker Park and get back on the Green Line to go home to Woodlawn that will be more than apparent. Who’s perpetuating this, and why does it hurt so much?

It hurts because they told me it was over. When I was in elementary school, the only spot of color in a swath of white, we were taught that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had marched and Rosa Parks had sat and Civil Rights had passed and we were all one big happy country and equality was real. They taught me to believe that the problem was fixed, that it was of the past. I should’ve heeded my mom and my other black relatives who told me to beware, who warned me that the fight was still very real. The fight is still very real. That’s why it hurts to see that the arbiters of culture still see the world in such a white way. The presence of people of color has to be an exception. The privileged spaces that are all or mostly white still exist. The burden of suffering and injustice in the world is still unfairly yoked on the backs of poor people of color.

Yeah, I got all of that from a horror movie that I liked. It may seem kind of ridiculous to you (if you’re a white person, or maybe not. Yay, woke white people!), but as a black woman, I don’t have the luxury of not seeing the prevalence of whiteness. It’s a constant reminder that I exist outside the larger, accepted, “correct” culture. That I exist even outside of the fantasy, sci-fi and horror worlds that I escape to when I need a break from the challenges of life. We’re still working to dismantle white spaces and make them everyone spaces. We’re still working to dismantle white privilege and make the world a pleasant place to live for everyone. We’re not done. The pain is still happening. The pain is still happening and It Follows is a really good movie, but everybody already knew that two years before I did. That’s all.        

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