Miss Understood: Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. At 30

Leslie Harris’s work offers food for thought about representation and suggests that authentic films are best made outside the Hollywood system, finds Mahnaz Dar

In the closing credits for Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., Leslie Harris refers to her work as “a film Hollywood dared not do,” an intriguing description – in a world where sex, drugs, and violence dominate, what was too risqué even for Hollywood? Apparently, a playful, funny, at times heartbreaking film about a Black teenager living life on her own terms was a bridge too far.

Released in 1992, the film opens with its protagonist, Chantel Mitchell (Ariyan A. Johnson), directly addressing viewers: “Some people hear about my neighborhood and assume some real fucked-up things. But I’m gonna tell you all the real deal.” It’s a promise that the whip-smart, stubborn 17-year-old never reneges on. Frequently breaking the fourth wall for pointed asides, she takes viewers along for the ride as she learns she is pregnant by her boyfriend Tyrone (Kevin Thigpen), a revelation that seems to shatter her dreams of escaping the Brooklyn projects and becoming a doctor. She makes stabs at tackling her situation, seeking out welfare benefits. But when, in a moment of bitter irony, she’s told that her overworked parents earn too much to qualify her for assistance, she instead devotes her efforts to hiding the pregnancy. Early labor forces her out of denial – and to confront a potentially devastating choice.

Harris faced an uphill battle getting the film made. Though she met with representatives from major studios, she soon realized that going the Hollywood route would have meant a perversion of her film; one executive suggested Harris write Tyrone as a drug dealer. She instead opted to make her film independently. Her refusal to box her characters into stereotypes that would be palatable to white audiences resulted in a richly layered story, but not the mainstream success she deserved.Just Another Girl is Harris’s only film, and the movie has flown under the radar for years.

Many films are referred to as groundbreaking for their time, but Harris’s decision to adhere to her own vision feels just as revolutionary today. Despite calls for inclusivity and diversity in film and other industries, we haven’t come nearly as far as we’d like to think. Today Black directors – and Black women directors, like Harris, in particular – continue to face hurdles. A 2021 study from Screen found that between 2018 and 2021, less than two percent of films shown at major festivals were made by Black filmmakers. Harris herself has spoken out about the difficulties she’s encountered; though she had plenty of ideas, and though doors were opening for Black male directors like Spike Lee or John Singleton, Harris’s agent was unable to get her funding for the projects she wanted, in large part because her films centered the experiences of Black women.

And many of the financially successful films attempting to explore the Black experience have been tepid, gutless affairs, like the Oscar-winning Green Book. Just as Laura Mulvey spoke about the “male gaze” to describe ways in which film sexualizes and objectifies female characters, arguably a white gaze casts Black characters and stories through a certain lens, where stories of white heroes and Black victims dominate.

It’s not difficult to imagine what Harris’s film might have looked like had it been put through the Hollywood assembly line, injected with a few doses of the white-savior complex, and wiped clean of verve or energy. The results might have resembled the relentlessly bleak Precious, which invited white audiences to view its impoverished African American protagonist with a mixture of horror and pity – and netted six Academy Award nominations.

By contrast, Just Another Girl is as effervescent as its heroine. Vivid colors dominate, in the lime greens and neon yellows of the ‘90s fashions and in the changing foliage as months pass. A snappy, well-chosen hip hop–infused soundtrack reverberates, and Chantel’s laughter echoes often, making for an immersive experience and for a film that defies many white viewers’ expectations of what a film like this should look like.

Today, there are debates not only about the quantity but the quality of representation – are we watching nuanced representation that rings true? Representation that bolsters Black viewers. rather than portraying them as objects of pity? Harris’s decades-old film seems to be directly responding to those questions, as the filmmaker plays deftly with tropes and stereotypes. A scene so achingly real it feels unscripted that sees Chantel and her friends swapping frighteningly ineffective methods for how to avoid pregnancy – having sex while standing; douching with soda – depicts the girls as troubled, wayward youths. Or consider another scene, where Chantel and her best friend Natete (Ebony Jerido) run into their friend Denisha (Monet Dunham), who’s just had a baby, Imani, and with no support from the child’s father has moved in with her mother – the moment frames Chantel and her friends as girls society writes off. Yet the teen’s sharp intellect is always on display, like when she tells Natete what the baby’s name means (“faith” in Yoruba) and when, as Denisha discusses her labor, Chantel tells Natete what an enema entails.

Harris knows that many see Chantel not as a person but as a societal ill; more importantly, Chantel knows it, too. She exhibits an intense awareness of both herself and how she’s seen – by the condescending white customers she waits on at work, by irritated fellow passengers on the subway, and by her loving but busy parents, doing everything in their power to keep her safe. Nevertheless, she’s buoyed by an indomitable sense of self. Use of a hand-held camera, along with scenes where Chantel turns to address viewers, gives the film an intimate feel; today it evokes reality TV, except in many ways it’s realer than that. Just when it seems easy to shake your head at Chantel, she looks right back at the viewer; I see you just as clearly as you see me, she seems to say.

And she contains far more depth than most depictions of Black teens – or, for that matter, many white teens. She’s a pitch-perfect portrait of adolescence: simultaneously wise beyond her years yet wildly, frustratingly in over her head. In one of the movie’s most satisfying scenes, she swaps places with her social studies teacher to school her classmates on how Eurocentric views of culture result in biased textbooks; in another sequence, she blows the $500 Tyrone gives her for an abortion on a shopping spree with her best friend, Natete.

In examining some of the critiques the film has received, it’s easy to see why producers were reluctant to make it Harris’s way. Leonard Maltin, in his 2009 Movie Guide, dismissed it as “amateur night” and referred to the film’s depictions of white characters as proof “that an African-American filmmaker can be as insensitive and racist as a white one.” Those portrayals, of Chantel’s teacher (whose history lessons could be termed #CurriculumSoWhite) and a snooty customer she waits on, barely amount to ten minutes of screen time and don’t even scratch the surface when it comes to the kind of racism Black teens face, yet they roused Maltin’s ire enough to overlook the film’s raw beauty. His critiques may seem myopic, but they also demonstrate that not only is the film industry overwhelmingly white – so is the world of film criticism. Even if a Black filmmaker makes the kind of movie she believes to be important and authentic, there’s no guarantee the establishment will embrace it.

Years later, more attention has been paid to the film, with indie and art house theaters offering screenings of it and Harris speaking about her experiences. Much has changed when it comes to seeing a more diverse film industry, but we still have miles to go. That Harris has yet to make another movie is a scathing indictment of the industry and society in general. While Spike Lee’s early work was, like Harris’s, unpolished, he was given room to grow, to create the likes of Do the Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman. Harris’s future films – among them possible masterpieces – have gone unseen, not lost on the cutting room floor but not even filmed.

Just as Chantel is summarily dismissed by so many around us, mainstream critics and the industry at large have done the same to Harris. Her film is a triumph, a success despite mountains of obstacles, yet it’s also indicative of failure – society’s. Though it’s a reminder of the authenticity of indie films, it should also rouse us to do better – to work toward a world where making a film like Just Another Girl isn’t an uphill battle, but something to take for granted.

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