How 'All The Bright Places' Invalidates Black Mental Illness
The biggest takeaway from the film adaptation of 'All The Bright Places' was that Black mental illness voices don’t matter. The film presents that the easiest way for Black people to heal from our mental health is to flee from it.
*This has taken me a month to write, due to recent anxiety about COVID-19, and completely giving up on sharing an opinion that may not be necessary in these current times. However, I still want to share how I feel about All The Bright Places, because up until watching the premiere of the Netflix film, I believed this story was for me.
I’d first read the book by Jennifer Niven in 2015, when I was a senior in high school. I was enthralled by the heart-wrenching accounts and vivid detail of what it was like living with mental illness through the eyes of Theodore Finch and Violet Markey, because I was living it myself. Like Violet’s character in the book, I was struggling to cope with a loss, as a classmate had died by suicide a few months before I read the book. In some aspects, I also related to Theodore in his responses to his own mental health, calling the days where he struggled, “Asleep.”
As a seventeen-year-old that was profound, because I was beginning to embark on a downward spiral of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Days would pass, and I felt as I’d been in hibernation, just going through the motions of completing schoolwork to the point of exhaustion, being a member of clubs that weren’t uplifting to me as a Black woman, and never taking time for self-care, because I didn’t know what “self-care” was. I was too afraid to talk about it with friends, and wouldn’t dare to speak to my single-mother about it (who was and still is the head of the household). I was terrified of being a burden, so All The Bright Places was my voice. While it didn’t offer any coping mechanisms on how to navigate my mental state, it was at least comforting to see mental illness being represented in Young Adult fiction--my favorite genre at the time.
Being a teen in the early 2010s meant that the only books I read were about vampires, dystopian worlds, and girl-next-doors. None of which included accurate Black narratives that I could relate to, but at that time, I was barely celebrating my own Blackness...so it didn’t resonate with me that I wasn’t reading stories about girls who looked like me.
So, when I heard that All The Bright Places was becoming a Netflix film, I was elated. But then, when I saw that Justice Smith (Paper Towns, Detective Pikachu, Every Day) would be playing the main character role of Theodore Finch, my heart sank. Justice Smith is the token Black guy for Young Adult novel-turned-film adaptations. He’s consistently played in roles where his Blackness is minimally acknowledged, let alone honored. In Paper Towns (2015), a novel originally written by The Fault in Our Stars author John Green, Smith’s Blackness is mocked as he plays Radar, a math and technology genius whose family owns a secret collection of Black Santa memorabilia. At the time, I thought this was light-hearted. But after living through the Black Lives Matter Movement and experiencing racism throughout college, I am ashamed that I even thought this was funny. Aside from the collection reveal, Smith’s character Radar doesn’t speak on his Blackness again and doesn’t progress as a Black man throughout this movie. In Every Day (2018), Smith plays an aggressive and emotionally abusive Justin, who chooses alcohol and partying over his neglected and submissive white girlfriend Rihannon. There was no mention of Blackness in the film Every Day, and because of this, the film works against the stereotypes of Black people being erratic and violent that Black actors have tried so hard to undo.
Smith did star in a pro-Black Netflix series titled “The Get Down,” but it was short-lived, only lasting for one season.
The biggest takeaway from the film adaptation of All The Bright Places was that Black mental illness voices don’t matter. Candice Frederick, a Black female contributor for The New York Times pens in a review article about the movie, “Even in today’s era when mental health is finally receiving the attention it deserves, Black people are often left out of the conversation. So, it’s refreshing, and even cathartic, to see a young adult narrative explore how that affects Black teens like Theodore who are struggling. But as progressive as “All the Bright Places” is in that respect, Theodore’s story line is not always handled with the depth it should receive. It’s an unfortunate flaw in a film that impressively balances moments of joy with equally resonating despair.”
Much like the Barnes and Noble Black History Month book cover incident, Justice Smith feels like the diversity hire in All The Bright Places because he’s starring in a role that wasn’t written with his Blackness in mind. In the book, Theodore Finch is described as having “extremely pale skin, black hair, and blue eyes.”
Obviously, he’s not Black.
So, this movie clearly didn’t want to seem racist by having two main white characters with Black friends, so the producers and Jennifer Niven decided on Justice Smith to play a character that was originally written for a straight white male to avoid backlash.
For Black people, this film does us no good.
Throughout the film, Finch is presented as a lost cause. After Violet and Finch meet for the first time, around the five minute mark, Finch sits in a counselor’s office. We see Finch trying to get help, even if he’s sarcastic and nonchalant about it. However, he’s not nurtured by his counselor, played by Keegan-Michael Key. Instead, his mistakes are first pointed out as Key chastises him: “Do you get that you’re on probation? You already missed two weeks of school this year.” This is not what you want to hear when you’re struggling with your mental health, especially when it comes from another Black man, who is supposed to be supporting you. Key then follows with, “We’re not asking a lot of you Finch. You just need to show up,” without ever reflecting on the fact that “showing up” may feel impossible to Finch, because he doesn’t have a diagnosis yet or a support system.
Finch’s mental health is also written off by his friends as, “something you just have to deal with,” after he disappears for a few days and is unreachable. Violet (Elle Fanning) is weary in a diner booth, while Finch’s friends (one a Black guy and an of-color girl) sit across from her, dunking fries into ketchup, and casually joke about how this is typical behavior for Finch.
The film presents that the easiest way for Black people to heal from our mental health is to flee from it. Finch disappears twice in the movie, leaving messages unanswered and his location impossible to track. But when Finch comes back up for air after being “Asleep”, he visits his sister at her job. This is only time where Finch addresses his mental health with his sister, and they recount triggering memories of their abusive father. Finch pushes for a reason for the abuse, stating that their father “can get better.” To which his sister fires back with, “Why are you asking me about dad?” Finch then retreats, stating that he’s “good,” and this feeds further into the harsh reality that Black people just don’t acknowledge their mental health or reach out for help. Though when we do, particularly in Black family dynamics, it’s downplayed and overshadowed with anger because we don’t want to sit down and talk about it. It’s easier to pretend as if it’s never existed.
Finch seeks help for a final time, but is subjected to a white-dominated therapy group. Members of the group therapy are revealing their struggles such as ADHD, depression, eating and anxiety disorders, and their various coping mechanisms. When it’s Finch’s turn to speak, he states,“No labels. Not really sure why I’m here. I guess it’s ‘cause I got in this fight at school. And I was there, but I wasn’t there. I was watching myself. I just get a little lost sometimes. I run a lot. Sometimes that helps. I don’t know, is that enough?” (Once again, Justice Smith had boxed himself into the stereotype of being impulsive.) It’s met with “Sure. Thanks. Glad you’re here” from the moderator of the support group.
No one ever offers Finch a solution throughout the whole film, pushing Finch to turn to suicide to escape the pain. The film is eerily similar to how mental illness is handled in the Black community. With the lack of Black therapists trained to handle Black mental health, as a community, we are forced to turn to white-washed therapies and counseling services that don’t cater to us, run by us. There is nowhere for us to turn, as no one tries to even help us.
As a Black person, after watching the movie, I felt defeated, empty, and disappointed. This movie didn’t offer any solutions for me as a Black person struggling with my mental health. It certainly didn’t make me feel supported either. All The Bright Places simply confirmed that the only solutions for coping for mental illness was to conform to whitewashed therapy methods or deal with it internally, hide, and lash out when bare-minimum help is offered. To sit and watch the film adaptation of a film that once held a special place in my heart is beyond saddening, but it just reassures me that this is how the world works.