In fall 2011, in one of the most widely publicized recent incidents of MPI (mass psychogenic illness), fifteen students—all but one of them girls—in the town of Le Roy in upstate New York started displaying tics, twitches, involuntary vocalizations, and other uncontrollable symptoms. It began, not incidentally, with the cheerleaders, but soon spread, capturing wide media attention. Erin Brockovich was called in to investigate environmental toxicity. Soon others, including adult women, were affected. Many remained symptomatic for months. The girls’ appearances on daytime talk shows and their own use of social media were thought to have spread the “mental infection” all the more effectively, and in fact, the symptoms declined when the coverage abated.
Symptoms spread by anxiety and identification can afflict any tight community under stress—whether from nerves or sociopolitical pressures or both. What does protest signify in the film's vision of an African American dance troupe afflicted by MPI in the era of #BlackLivesMatter? The irruption of uncontrollable behavior, the lack of individual responsibility, and the possibility of mass participation combine to make the fits potent signs of black bodies as, and under, threat. Director Anna Rose Holmer's debut feature, The Fits (2016), depicts black girlhood through the rhythms of cinematic form and bodies in motion, maintaining a close attention that at the same time keeps its distance, a dynamic that characterizes the film's themes, approach, and the working relationship between the young white director and the youth in the film.