Commentary: ‘Not Okay’ tries to indict performative activists. Here’s why it falls short
Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch), the protagonist of “Not Okay,” isn’t meant to be liked. In fact, the viewer is explicitly warned to this effect: “This film contains flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikable female protagonist.”
“Not Okay,” written and directed by Quinn Shephard and premiering Friday on Hulu, follows through on its promise. After failing at work, feeling lonely and craving respect as a writer, Danni uses her social media to pretend to be on a writer’s retreat in Paris — and then, when a terrorist attack at the Arc de Triomphe complicates her lie, she turns it to her personal advantage by using her new identity as a survivor to become a popular activist.
Danni turns out to be the perfect example of a performative activist, especially in the social media era. She echoes the flurry of social media posts during the summer of 2020, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, by people who were quick to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement in theory, but not so much in practice. Take #BlackoutTuesday, which encouraged people to post black squares to their social media profiles — which many used to signal opposition to police brutality while taking no further action against it. (Instead, they were eager to get “back to normal.” On a corporate level, companies are quick to tout themselves as supporters of marginalized communities — such as the LGBTQ community during Pride — but by the time the calendar turns to the first of the next month, the rainbow advertising and queer slogans are gone.
However well-meaning, black (or rainbow, or blue-and-yellow) squares in place of social media avatars or hashtags protesting against the killing of Floyd, Breonna Taylor or Tony McDade, can only go so far.
Trendy photos with protest signs and flowery graphics that surfaced on our feeds in 2020 were not always the best evidence of who had their heart in the cause and who didn’t.
“Not Okay” with Zoey Deutch hits Hulu, HBO Max has animated VRChat documentary “We Met in Virtual Reality” and more movies to watch at home.
To draw a similar point, Shephard‘s picture of the privileged Danni, who visits trendy matcha bars and has the support of her affluent parents, begins with her distaste for caring for others. When she’s lonely, she turns to her LGBTQ co-workers to invite her to a queer bowling event — where her pestering and badgering are littered with microaggressions, to the point that Larson (Dash Perry), mocks her complaints: “Yeah, being a minority is great!”
Her penchant for chasing clout at the expense of marginalized groups is particularly stark when she befriends Rowan (Mia Isaac), a Black teenage activist who survived a school shooting and has become a popular face of the movement to end gun violence. Danni first encounters her at a support group for trauma survivors and only gains interest in her when she finds out she is well-known.
Danni, like many performative activists, co-opts Rowan’s words for her own purposes, writing a viral article about her fabricated experience in Paris. And while Danni can publish her piece online and share it with others without emotional hesitation, even using a strong statement by Rowan to amplify the article, Rowan herself is at school, reliving her trauma during an active shooter drill and focusing on the real work.
While Danni isn’t completely unlikable — in a sweet moment, we see her find the community she yearns for in the trauma survivor support group, and she slowly begins to step into the shoes of Rowan’s big sister — there is an undertone of falsehood threatening to let the bridge she built crack and break. We can’t ignore that she lied her way to Rowan.
Zoey Deutch has been going to Art’s Delicatessen since she was 1 week old.
Plus, the shallowness of Danni’s relationship with Rowan shines through as soon as the going gets tough. When Rowan’s PTSD lands her in the hospital, Danni flees rather than confront the challenges that face activists of color, including social media abuse. She becomes the definition of the performative activist: Someone motivated by the aesthetic, to get their face out there and to be known as a “good person,” who ultimately can’t or won’t put in the time or effort, push through the disappointment, fight the discrimination. Like other performative activists, Danni’s privilege is the privilege of flight.
We all know what happens after the final scene: Danni goes home to her affluent life with her parents, where she’ll bounce back from a broken reputation. Rowan keeps fighting for gun control, despite her trauma being reopened by a Danni-sized bullet.
The problem with “Not Okay” is that, as Danni runs, the camera — the eye of the film — follows her, suggesting that we should leave the antihero with sympathy, or at least that she should remain the focus of our attention. Rather than confront our attraction to performative activists, who need an audience to perform to, it perpetuates it; rather than shift the frame to Rowan and the marginalized groups on the front line, it tells yet another story of privilege run amok.
The film may end with a heart-wrenching slam poem by Rowan that sums up how twisted the situation is — in which she asks, “Why do people like you get movies on Netflix and Hulu and people like me get told to sit tight and wait for change?” — but it’s not enough for the film to ask the question without offering a different answer. That’s the privilege of the performative activist at work too.
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