“When an aspiring rapper goes viral for all the wrong reasons, he thinks his career is over. But when his best friend gets them into a wild New York City after party, he gets one more chance to make the impossible happen.”
Such is the premise of The After Party, a newly released Netflix film that is causing waves in the epilepsy community. At issue? The aspiring rapper (played by Kyle Harvey) has a seizure on-stage after smoking some low-grade marijuana backstage with Wiz Khalifa (played by himself). The weed presumably prompts this character to projectile vomit and convulse while audience members record the incident on their phones. Overnight, the character becomes an internet sensation known as #seezjahboy. The remainder of the film portrays his efforts to overcome this “mishap.”
Epilepsy community members, including the President and CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation, have criticized both the film and Netflix for making light of a serious medical condition and for failing to “educate people about seizures or provide information on what to do if someone sees a person having a seizure.” In a formal statement, Philip Gattone writes, “Making fun of someone having a seizure is bullying at its worst. When such responses are portrayed as acceptable behavior – even in movies – it is demeaning and hurtful to our epilepsy community and all of us.” Gattone adds, “While we welcome opportunities to portray real stories of people with epilepsy in movies and in the media, it is a serious affront to our community when so-called entertainment mocks or jokes about having epilepsy or seizures.”
The problem with such a response is this: it’s not clear that The After Party portrays bullying as acceptable behavior. Yes, characters mock a person who experiences a seizure. But it’s a fallacy to presume that characters speak for the filmmaker. This is especially so when the film takes the form of social critique, as The After Party does.
It is hard to miss the extent to which this movie pokes fun at digital culture and the absurdities of the entertainment industry, in which a singular incident can “make or break” one’s entire career. The primary conflict in the film involves the main character’s coming to terms with the reality that luck and things beyond his control over-determine his fate. He must accept, as another character puts it, that “the internet giveth, and the internet taketh away.” Writer/director Ian Edelman’s previous film, How to Make it in America, presents a similar premise, which is why critics have described both films as “coming of age” stories.
In The After Party and in “coming of age” narratives more generally, the main character realizes that the world is a cruel place that he must learn to navigate nonetheless. Readers/viewers are encouraged to sympathize with this character—and not with the world in which he finds himself. They are, in other words, rooting for the protagonist and against the universal forces that seek to do him harm. The presence of a comedic layer, such as that in The After Party, does not undo these narrative impulses. Viewers want to see the rapper prevail in no small part because of the ridiculousness of the culture that he is up against.
That culture is one in which vulnerable individuals, such as those who experience serious medical events, are treated callously, rather than with compassion. When the main character vomits on an audience member’s shoes, the latter screams, “Not my Yeezies!” This scene suggests the self-interest of young people, who are more concerned with their appearance and their cherished commodities (Kanye West-inspired sneakers) than with the safety of another human being. Surely, individuals with epilepsy can relate to this, even as they object to the sensational dramatization of the on-screen seizure.
The culture that The After Party critiques is also one in which personal suffering is repackaged for public consumption. As already mentioned, the rapper is quickly designated #seezjahboy, a name that says more about “yeezy” culture than it does epilepsy. In his summary of the film, Gattone mistakenly reports that the character was nicknamed “Seizure Boy.” In doing so, Gattone denies readers the opportunity to see the obvious social commentary that is unfolding. The actual moniker suggests the eagerness with which fans re-appropriate others’ experiences for the sake of mass circulation.
The film’s form and genre suggest that, rather than endorsing the behaviors of the “bullying” characters, The After Party highlights the injustices that these characters (and their real-life counterparts) exact upon vulnerable persons, such as those who lose control of their bodies in public. In doing so, The After Party does not “harken back to the [epilepsy] Dark Ages;” it shines a light on the realities of living with a hyper-visible condition in the media-saturated twenty-first century.