There is a genre of indie, slightly navel-gazey movie that is tailor-made for rainy and/or sick days. They usually revolve around someone in their twenties or thirties, living in a big city, and struggling through a crisis in love, career, or family. There are growing pains, much awkwardness, some sex, and perhaps a public dance scene, as well as a (or several) moment(s) of realization. By the end of the movie, the lead character’s path might still be a little cloudy, but crucially, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In case it wasn’t clear, the lead character in this movie is always white.
Knowing all that, then, it is not that difficult to chart the lineage of the new Jim Strouse film, The Incredible Jessica James, starring one half of WNYC podcast 2 Dope Queens — and The Daily Show alum — Jessica Williams. Netflix’s recent acquisition has all the trappings of its indie status: from its memorably hyperbolic and eponymous title to its subject matter — the life, loves, and times of a girl in the big city. Fifteen seconds into the opening scene, some of which appears in the official trailer, you are comfortably up to speed on just what the dialogue in this film will sound like. We have seen it a lot over the years in similarly titled movies: Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall is a grandmother of sorts to Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha, and not just because both those eponymous movies were directed by men (Gerwig cowrote Frances Ha). Recognizing this genre for what it is does not make the films inherently bad. The Incredible Jessica James is in (often) good company. It is also, in 2017, one of the first, if not the first, time one of these films has had a black woman at its center.
There is no particular pleasure in noting that Jessica James stands apart by virtue of her race — not least because this is not a film about her blackness. Her race is not at the center of the movie. Indeed, it is never explicitly referred to at any point. But the story is structured around this tall and interesting black woman, and that's something that is rare and wonderful. The big screen seems to finally be catching up on what web series — and lately TV shows — have been quietly and tenaciously carving out over the last half decade or so: narratives that center black experiences while also choosing to not focus explicitly on, for example, social justice and civil rights.
Web series like Rachel Holder’s (now recast and retitled) I Love Bekka & Lucy, Sam Bailey’s You're So Talented, and the many shows of Numa Perrier and Dennis Dortch and Black&Sexy TV, were part of a modern wave primarily interested in the inner lives of young black people. When we think millennials, we are almost never picturing a black guy who makes custom T-shirts, or a young black woman working for a nonprofit — and so these series served to remind us that we could, and should, be. Those creators — themselves often black women and men — were telling very specific stories that hadn’t been told before on the platforms suddenly made available to them. And since Issa Rae’s The Mis-adventures of Awkward Black Girl’s YouTube debut in 2011, viewers have been served up an entire buffet of shortform black girl intimacies. One of the most memorable early scenes has Rae’s J sitting on her bed in a vest and knickers, writing out terrible rap lyrics. The scene was an elongated establishing shot for the whole series, an indicator that we would be seeing a lot of the interior life of this particular black woman. Upon J’s shoulders — and the shoulders of Chick and Dude (The Couple) and Whitney and Robyn (Hello Cupid) — is where Jessica James now stands.
Black people in the US that frequent the cinema do so at a rate that is on a par with their proportion in the general population, according to the Theatrical Market Statistics study commissioned by the Motion Picture Association of America. We have had no problem consuming — and in fact loving — films in which protagonists are white, even as white audiences struggle to do the same with nonwhite film characters. For all the pushes in diversity and inclusion from big studio franchises like Star Wars and the many films of the Marvel Universe, Hollywood is still blindingly white. That's changed thanks to the advent of the web series focused on black girls — as viewers and protagonists — that have either evolved into TV shows themselves (like when Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl became Insecure), or helped cultivate the climate that let films and shows like Dear White People and Black-ish (and soon College-ish) bloom. And now feature-length mainstream movies seem to have caught on — finally, Jessica James is showing black girls some love back.
It’s about time.
The teaser trailer for The Incredible Jessica James might call to mind two projects conceived over the last decade: Barry Jenkins’ feature debut, Medicine For Melancholy (2008), and the as yet unreleased Travis and Tabitha, directed by Keith Purvis. Both films are about young black men and women living in urban sprawls, in San Francisco and Chicago, respectively. They both seemingly owe a debt to a more mainstream shoegaze filmmaking mentality, a space that has largely been the preserve of white men (and sometimes white women). It’s worth noting that besides the circumstances of the one-night stand that facilitates the plot, Jenkins’ film, starring Tracey Heggins and Wyatt Cenac, was not really about the inner life of Jo, and even swings to cover gentrification (a decision that does not cohere all that seamlessly with the rest of the film).
Directors like Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, Noah Baumbach, the Duplass brothers, and pre-Girls Lena Dunham were responsible for the mumblecore movement of the early aughts: naturalistic acting and dialogue married to suburban/urban landscapes, with a sensibility that prioritises, by design or oversight, the point of view of white people. Their appeal, however, is not limited to white audiences; as is the lot of the black filmgoer, empathy for these racially removed characters has been a rigorously enforced lesson over the years. We watch these movies too, and many of us love them. And sometimes, we even turn up in bit parts (see Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson). Even rarer, sometimes nonwhite people make and star in them (see Iranian-American filmmaker Desiree Akhavan’s 2015 film Appropriate Behavior).
And so it took getting to the halfway point of The Incredible Jessica James to realize a small but thrilling thing: I could afford not to care about the best friend character. It doesn’t sound like much at all, but this is a task I have been compelled to undertake for almost three decades of fandom. She has been the receptacle of almost all my primary feelings. I have invested in and rooted for her — more screentime! More in-depth dialogue! — and while the motivation for my investment was multipronged, a large chunk of it rested on the particular feeling of racial kinship. Because when we are lucky, which is to say when we are not erased from the narrative entirely, black women get to be "best friends" on the big screen. See: Stacey Dash (Clueless), Viola Davis (Eat Pray Love), and Regina King (Legally Blonde 2, Miss Congeniality 2), among others. We get to cheer on the Nice White Lady — the eater of every slice of the film’s "life propulsion pie," aka juggling a career with a love life, vacillating between unsuitable men, finding herself, etc. — while fading discreetly into the background. The trend was solid enough to even get a parody version: In David Wain’s rom-com spoof, They Came Together, Teyonah Parris plays Wanda, Amy Poehler’s sassy best friend.
In these films (and TV shows), black women don’t pull focus. They function to prop up the heroine’s story, giving us limited to nonexistent glimpses into their lives. No wonder we write so much fanfic.
Strouse looked to his own life for some of The Incredible Jessica James narrative beats: from Jessica’s job working for a children’s theater nonprofit, to the many frustrations that come with trying to live and thrive as an artist. “Honestly, a lot of the story, for me, is kind of like a...reconfiguration of the past. I went through something similar, moving to NY and having all this hope and ambition, and getting nothing but rejection,” Strouse said at a Q&A after a June screening of the film in Brooklyn during BAMCinemaFest.
Perhaps that biographical element explains the lack of a specific ~black trauma~ at the film’s core, an element that is often deemed to be necessary in order to get a black person’s story onscreen. Williams, also present at that Brooklyn screening, delighted in the chance to be part of a wave of black stories that have been allowed to flourish onscreen in recent years, namechecking Donald Glover’s FX show Atlanta and Issa Rae’s HBO show Insecure, among others. Strouse and Williams had worked together before, on the 2015 film People Places Things, and this newest collaboration was both organic and serendipitous. “It was really interesting when he brought the idea of writing a movie for me,” said Williams. “I was like, Yeah, man, this white dude’s about to write me whaaaat? I was like, I’m available!” For Strouse, the green-lighting and production of the movie was markedly easy. “It hasn’t always been like that, but I think because I had the people I really liked and liked me, everyone knew that if Jessica wanted to do it, it would be great. You hear the stories about how it takes 10 years, and you have to convince a hundred different people – it wasn’t the case with this.”
And while the script was written by its director, there was healthy feedback and some improvisation from Williams (and from her costar Chris O’Dowd). “We’d sort of talked about the idea and different elements in it and I sort of said, You tell me where I’m off base or if something doesn’t feel right, cause it’s really important that everything feels good to you,” said Strouse. For Williams, there was a rare safety in their collaboration. “What was great about it was [Jim] was just a really great listener and I really felt like he respected who I was as a woman and as a black woman and so I never really felt like I was in danger. I’ve had that before where people have written things for me in the past where they like definitely crossed over several lines, you know? Where you’re like, Oh, well this doesn’t necessarily feel safe, but I didn’t really have that with Jim.”
Williams’ distinctive turns of phrase are apparent throughout the film. One of Strouse’s favorites occurs at the movie’s start, where the actor says she would “rather have my period for a thousand years” than extend the date she’s on. “Jessica was really cooking [in that scene],” Strouse said mildly. But the character’s blackness creates and results in a ripple effect felt throughout the film. To wit, we meet Jessica’s black parents, her black sister, and her black ex-boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield). Her most promising student at the — multiracial — theater skills workshop in Hell’s Kitchen is Shandra (Taliyah Whitaker), a black girl. Her writing idol (who also has a cameo in the film) is the Tony Award–winning playwright Sarah Jones (a black woman). Jessica James is not black in isolation, surrounded by an all-white cast (which could’ve happened; she does live in Bushwick) — instead, she is fleshed out and layered via a series of small decisions that influence how the wider film looks and sounds and feels. It’s not exactly groundbreaking. But it’s...kinda groundbreaking? At the very least, it’s a welcome addition to the broader indie canon.
The inherent whiteness of this kind of film does impact the industry as a whole, not least at a funding level, and who gets to make what: If something is successful, it is rewarded with more funding, and then replicated ad nauseam. Following the success of Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas, and other micro-budget projects, for example, Joe Swanberg got Netflix money to make anthology series Easy for the platform. By contrast, now-Oscar-winning writer-director Barry Jenkins had a slightly more troubled career path.
And so the next step, as ever, is to keep pushing for a plurality of stories, from an array of perspectives. Films like The Incredible Jessica James should not exist to “challenge stereotypes,” aka an itchy and needless mantle of singular representation for an entire demographic. That eponymous girl’s reality is no more or less valid than any other fictional black girl's — suburban, inner-city, rich, poor, or somewhere in between these points — on the screen. The answer is simply: make more. As many stories as we can get. Make them all.
Fashions change, and audiences move on to new formats and styles; the kinds of web series that brought us this far have fallen out of favor for the most part. But arguably, their work is already done: In existing — and in creating and sustaining stories with specifically black leads — they pulled out an already-enthusiastic audience and presented it to Hollywood on a platter. It cannot be a coincidence that Jessica James was financed and found a home on Netflix with alacrity. Those web series directly paved the way, and Netflix knew it was as safe a bet as any. They were the first to love us back, and to love us so well.
It’s time for film studios and distributors to pick up the baton now, and just run. ●