A woman faces loss, life

Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Omari Hardwick: A bereavement complicated and clarified.
Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Omari Hardwick: A bereavement complicated and clarified.
Posted: March 12, 2011

I Will Follow, Ava DuVernay's triumphant feature debut, is a life-affirming portrait of a woman, Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), juggling all kinds of loss.

Maye's beloved aunt has died, her romance (with Blair Underwood) is on the critical list, and her career (as a makeup artist) is in limbo. Over the course of 12 hours, she moves from suspended animation to emotional action, packing up a house while unpacking her own emotional baggage.

Aunt Amanda (Beverly Todd, seen in numerous flashbacks) was a life force warm and golden as sunshine, a flamboyant recording-session drummer who was to rock and jazz what Maya Angelou is to poetry.

At its best, the movie dances to Amanda's upbeat music, but it takes some time for Maye to get in the groove.

DuVernay has confidence in her actors that is reciprocated in kind. Richardson-Whitfield gives a remarkably empathetic performance. Rather than impose Maye's drama on the audience, she brings the audience to Maye's perspective.

The film is structured as Maye's series of encounters with relatives, friends, and strangers who in turn complicate and clarify her bereavement. What can she say to her cousin Fran (Michole White), raw with grief and jealous that Maye was her mother's favorite? How should she handle her nephew Raven (Dijon Talton), who's there to help but only gets in the way?

The most important question is the film's most implicit: Do we better honor the deceased by building a shrine of their possessions or by paying tribute to their spirit?

For a relatively untested filmmaker (she is a veteran movie publicist and has made one documentary), DuVernay tells her story with economy and restraint. She shows the characters, does not explain them for us.

Only at the film's end do we understand the title as a double-entendre, referring both to a U2 track that Amanda played on and also to Maye. Though she loses her aunt, she finds a way to follow Amanda's path.

I Will Follow is the inaugural release of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM). It began an exclusive run Friday at the AMC Loews Cherry Hill.

I Will Follow *** (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Ava DuVernay. With Salli Richardson- Whitfield, Beverly Todd, Tracie Thoms, and Blair Underwood. Distributed by African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.

Running time: 1 hour, 23 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (mild profanity, discreet sensuality)

Playing at: AMC Loews Cherry Hill

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/.

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