My second and final piece from my time at last weekend’s superb four-day Cinema Rediscovered festival at Bristol’s Watershed Arts Cinema looks a Leslie Harris’ wonderful film Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. This was the centerpiece movie of the festival, used as key art on the festival poster and presented on a lovely 35mm print brought over to the West Country from the US by the film’s director. Despite having won a major award at Sundance and being released to acclaim in the nineties, this print is now only one. A shocking state of affairs.
Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. has the distinction of being the first film released in the UK by an African American female director, beating Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust by a couple of months. Both films are pioneering work, made at a time when a film written and directed by a woman was an even rarer event than today, and one by an African American female writer-director even rarer.
Leslie Harris’ movie presents the life experience of a working-class African American teenage girl coming of age in the early nineties in Brooklyn. Chantel (Ariyan A. Johnson) lives in the projects but is far from a stereotype. Determined not to repeat what she perceives as her mother’s mistakes (getting pregnant young, living from paycheck to paycheck) Chantal vows not to join the many women travelling on the I.R.T (Interborough Rapid Transit, one of New York’s train operators) travelling out of the projects to low paid service jobs in wealthier areas.
She sees her life all planned out: keeping her grade average up; graduate; college; a career as a doctor. The only minor obstacle is her white history teacher (he’s white. So is the history) whose lesson plans she delights in derailing with outbursts of political agitation. She also has an on and off boyfriend but is determined not to become tied down. Life, however, has other plans.
She may be an A student, but Chantel still enjoys teenage social life to the full, including sex. Despite her smarts, intelligence and sass, a dalliance with Tyrone (Kevin Thigpen) — whose maturity is demonstrated by his ownership of a Jeep — results in a skipped period, a pregnancy test, and some hard choices ahead.
Harris’ film sounds on paper like it could have a reactionary bent, where many filmmakers would indulge in moralizing about a woman’s choices, Harris never portrays sex negatively. Chantal’s dilemma is in part caused by the widespread ignorance of a generation lacking the sex education and coherent contraceptive advice that should be an accepted part of life in a progressive first world society. Whilst aspects of the film are of their time (fashions, music, etc) as another US administration plots to defund planned parenthood the narrative line here remains sharply relevant. Harris is careful to present her characters as real people, with all the attendant flaws that entail. Chantal has her issues, and the film makes her own them. Leading to a final act that is full of dread and suspense but not sensationalism.
Ariyan A. Johnson is wonderful in the lead role. Harris uses the difficult device of a to-camera first-person narration, something that very hard for any actor to pull off without seeming arch. Johnson handles it with verve, creating an intimate relationship with the viewer rather than one that is ironically distancing. Some of the performances in the film can be a little unpolished, but she has as much onscreen magnetism and wit as any female lead from John Hughes’ teen films. Thigpen is also effective as the conflicted on and off boyfriend. He handles learning about the pregnancy epically badly, but Tyrone stays (literally) in the picture.
Harris fought battles to make the film she wanted. The script was nearly financed a few years earlier, but perhaps looking to the success of male-centric films about African American life like Boyz in the Hood (this a charitable reading) executives requested that Tyrone become a drug dealer. Harris refused and the deal went away. Miramax who eventually acquired and released the movie wanted to have Tyrone on the poster. Again Harris stood her ground arguing that this was Chantal’s story. That time she prevailed.
The plot may sound potentially grueling, but this is a very funny, very entertaining film that stands alongside the best independent US films of the period. In addition to a great script, a real sense of place, and Johnson’s brilliant performance, the film also features great nineties fashions (Harris has been told it is now the go-to style guide for urban fashion in 90s period pieces), and a banging soundtrack. Despite a serious lack of money, Harris secured the services of Eric ‘Vietnam’ Sadler, a member of The Bomb Squad notable for work with Public Enemy. Sadler put together a killer set of female fronted hip-hop tracks that have stood the test of time.
Unfortunately for various reasons Just Another Girl on the I.R.T has become less well known than it deserves and Harris’ career tragically stalled following the film’s initial release (to date she has not directed another feature, and not for want of trying). Not all of this is explained by institutionalized sexism. The early nineties is an awkward period before the home entertainment market exploded and there are a number of notable independent films from the time that have slipped between the cracks and fallen into relative obscurity.
Harris’ story is a long way from over. At a post-screening Q&A, she revealed that not only has she working on a making-of documentary for several years (hopefully this indicates a proper Blu-Ray release of the film is in the offing), but she has also written a sequel. The director was remarkably free of bitterness, pointing out that the early nineties were a different time for women, and women of color, in the US film industry.
This is really an important film in the history of American independent cinema.