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 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.
DuVernay’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. The shots into the dressing mirror that signal flashbacks are also 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.