Meet Royalty Hightower, the magnetic young star of The Fits, a stunning new film which centers around 11-year-old Toni as she transitions from tomboy boxer to sparkling drill team dancer. But, as she and her friends prepare for a dance competition, mysterious fainting episodes take hold of the dancers, one by one.
On a recent afternoon, at a public library in Cincinnati, Hightower—her mother next to her—was dressed in all purple, fittingly. Shy, polite, and sweet it quickly transpires that she loves books, and is extremely well spoken. "The part of Toni was supposed to be 13 or 14, and I was 9 at the time," says Hightower, who likes to hold eye contact. "The director of our drill team asked if some of the younger kids could audition. I think I was the 8th person to audition and they stopped." She's right: on only the eighth audition, the film crew had found their lead actress.
Hightower is the focal point of nearly every frame of the film, the second feature from director Anna Rose Holmer (Twelve Ways To Sunday, 2010), and hers has already been called one of the breakthrough performances of the summer by outlets including The New York Times. Intimate close-ups showcase Hightower's striking performance as a quiet, expressive girl and these private moments are juxtaposed with expansive, symmetrical, architectural shots that allow the actors, many of whom had never acted before The Fits, to run and dance across the screen.
Early in the film Toni practices punches and rolls, hanging around her older brother Jermaine in the boxing gym after school. In the girls' locker room Toni finds herself isolated, unwrapping the boxing tape from her hands while her peers gush and laugh about dance uniforms. Later, with the help of dance team members, Toni pierces her own ears, an introspective moment of conflicted self identity and growth. Such are the nuances of Hightower's expression, that she conveys powerful emotions throughout the film without saying a word.
The Fits was filmed with no professional actors, though you would never know it. For Hightower, who has been dancing since age 6, playing Toni was a natural evolution. "There was a lot of movement in this movie, and that's like me," she said. Scene after scene, the love of dance is evident—Holmer credits the strong community fabric of the Q-Kidz dance team, of which many of the children are a part, as an important element of the film they could not have recreated with actors.
With a smile, Hightower recounts that she loved the experience: the unlimited tangerine Cuties and donuts on set, reading lines, and especially the scenes that required running, jumping, dancing, and hanging upside down. She is, after all, an 11-year-old girl, just 10 at the time of filming.
Hightower's real-life step-sister, Alexis Neblett, also performs as Toni's bubbly best friend, Beezy. She helps & encourages Toni as Toni struggles to learn the dance moves. "Beezy is like her everyday personality," Royalty asserts. "[Alexis] acts like that in real life, so I think that was a good part for her." The younger girls band together and practice—a reflection of the supportive community that exists within the Q-Kidz in real life.
The Q-Kidz is an after school program to keep inner-city kids off the street, started 29 years ago. The entire cast of dancers in The Fits are on the team, and some, including Hightower, are featured in Jamie Lidell's "Big Love" music video. They tour nationally for parades and performances—you can even spot the same dance team uniforms in both projects.
In addition to her acting debut, Hightower also took up boxing for this role; her onscreen brother Jermaine, played by Da'Sean Minor, is a nationally ranked youth boxer.
"He taught me a couple of combinations to use during the movie," says Hightower, with a laugh, "but I don't know anything about boxing." In one pivotal scene we see Toni's boxing combinations blend into dance moves—juxtapositions of masculine and feminine worlds are also beautifully examined by the filmmakers.
The Fits , which opens at the Metrograph in New York City tomorrow, premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January, and was christened in New York earlier this week with a special performance from the Q-Kidz. Hightower and Holmer introduced the movie on Tuesday, expressing special gratitude to Ms. Quicy, the founder and director of the dance company.
The Q-Kidz beamed with pride and confidence as they danced and kicked across the field at Elevated Acre. After the performance Hightower said, "I always dreamed of being in the movies, but I didn't think it would happen. Dreams really do come true."
"On our dance team," Ms Quicy added, "we want these girls to know that they shouldn't get caught up in the cards they were dealt. If they are not good ones, deal yourself another hand and keep it moving."
Photographed by Josh Anderson, styling by Tamia Stinson, hair by Dona Ford, makeup by Dominique Duskin. Shot on location in Cincinnati, OH