Female Filmmaker Friday: Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., 1992 (dir. Leslie Harris)
This is another film I first discovered during A Year With Women. It was recommended by several people and at the time was available on Netflix (it’s not streaming there anymore, but it is for rent on Amazon, Google Play, and more online video rental services). Later that year TCM aired it during its inaugural Trailblazing Women In Film celebration. It was scheduled to be added to Spotlight: Women Directors on FilmStruck with an introduction by Alicia Malone, however the service was closed before it got added. Last year, which was the 25th anniversary of its theatrical release (it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 1992), the film made the rounds of repertory theaters in the United States and the U.K. I’m hoping it’ll get a nice Blu-ray release sometime in the near future.
In an interview with the New York Times, writer-director Leslie Harris shared that she pitched the film to several micro-major studios, one of which liked the script but wanted her to change the boyfriend character into a drug dealer. Harris refused, set up her own production company, and made the film for a low $130K (with some finishing funds provided by Terry McMillan and Michael Moore). The film was shot on location throughout NYC in just 17 days. Despite winning a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993 and receiving distribution by Miramax, the film received mixed reviews upon its initial release (one wonders how many black women critics, then and now, make up the film’s 65% RT score. Spoiler alert: none of the 23 reviews on the site are by black women). However, it later found a home on HBO and other cable channels in the late-90s where it became a sort of cult classic. Also of note: Robert Rodriguez’s similarly low-budget El Mariachi also premiered at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. Rodriguez’s blew up after the release of his first film. Harris has yet to get a second feature funded. The above linked NYT articles includes several of the films she’s pitched over the last 25 years. They all sound amazing.
The film stars Ariyan A. Johnson (probably best known as Aisha on the second season of The Steve Harvey Show) as the titular girl – Chantel Mitchell. Chantal is a 17-year-old junior living in Brooklyn with big dreams of graduating early from high school so she can work on her dream of becoming a doctor. She lives in the projects, taking care of her two younger brothers as her mother works during the day and her father works nights. Despite the chaos at home, Chantel knows what she wants and is prepared to work hard for her dreams.
Throughout the film Chantel breaks the fourth wall, sharing her feelings about the world around her with the audience. She’s funny, whip-smart, opinionated, and occasionally a bit egotistical. Everything you’d expect from a very bright, confident young woman. What I love the most about this character is Harris has written a fully fleshed out teenage girl. She never feels like a cliché. She worries about school, her home life, her future, her friends, and boys. There’s room in her universe for all of these experiences.
I particularly love the moments when we see Chantel at school. She clashes with her teacher, schooling him on the ways in which the history of people of color have been diminished by the way they are taught in US schools. She also clashes with the administration of the school when she declares she wants to graduate early. I do love how this is handled because the administrators are really just trying to tell Chantel that she has some maturing to do, but like any teenager she just doesn’t want to hear it. While at the same time, as Harris will do many times in the film, the filmmaker comments on respectability politics.
A few things about the above screenshot: 1) This movie is hands down one of the most stylish in terms of its fashion to come out of the early 90s. 2) I love all the scenes of the girls together just being happy and carefree. 3) This film was made in the height of the AIDS crisis, which at the time about 1/3 of the cases in the US were among the black community. This film shows the girls talking frankly about sex – and being completely misinformed about how birth control and condoms work. Also at the time this film was made teen pregnancy in the US was on the rise. So when the film’s big moment happens – Chantel becomes pregnant – it wasn’t just for shock, it was a reality.
SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD
After one of the most intense birth scenes you will ever see, I love that Harris does not make having a child become the end of Chantel’s dreams. While the film wraps up a little too quickly, her choice to show Chantel thriving still feels bold. Harris shows how education (not just in the form of public school, but also in life skills, sex ed. etc.) or lack thereof is one of the main causes of the circle of poverty. But instead of condemning Chantel or presenting the pregnancy as a mistake, it becomes just a bump along the way of her story. With determination, grit, and a solid support system anything is possible.