Film / Leslie Harris

'Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.' (1993) by Leslie Harris

. 8 min read . Written by Lindsay Pugh
'Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.' (1993) by Leslie Harris

Vibe:
Super 90s and full of attitude. "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T." is a coming-of-age story in the same vein as "Clueless," "The Edge of Seventeen," and "The Diary of a Teenage Girl." The style is equal parts cinéma-vérité, Godardian breaking of the fourth wall, and rap music video. It's not especially beautiful to look at (it's true indie with a $100k budget), but it is visually interesting, especially if you're into 90s fashion (Chantel's Blossom hat!) and enjoy seeing pre-gentrification Fort Greene.

Chantel-Just-Another-Girl-on-the-I.R.T.-Leslie-Harris
Kid Lindsay would have begged her mom for this hat.

Best time to watch:
Now. I was prompted to watch this movie because my friend Gina sent me this interview in the New York Times with Leslie Harris. "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T." won the special jury prize at Sundance in 1993. At the time, it was exceptionally rare (even rarer than it still is today) for a Black woman to write, direct, and co-produce a film also starring a Black woman. At the time, I can only think of one other film in the same boat: "Daughters of the Dust" by Julie Dash.

Sadly, Harris has been unable to make a second feature film. In the same interview, she says,

I did a short for Showtime about Bessie Coleman, the first African-American pilot. I went around pitching that for a feature and people would say, the story’s not that important. I wrote a movie about a female hip-hop artist. People said they loved the script, but I couldn’t get that financed. I tend to write films that deal with one black woman’s story. That’s where it becomes a little tricky in the film industry. And I think it does a disservice to the black women who aren’t getting that kind of role.

Are you pissed off? Watch this movie! Talk about this movie! It's the twenty-five year anniversary of "Just Another Girl," so now is the time to create some hype and help Harris get the financing she needs to make her second film. As a debut, "Just Another Girl" is good, but it suffers from many issues common with first-time directors - uneven pacing, subpar acting, strange tone. But it has tons of promise and I'd like to see what Harris is capable of with a few more films under her belt.

Worst time to watch:
When you're not in the mood to relive the early 90s. "Just Another Girl" feels dated, which I think is kind of unavoidable for movies that focus on the cultural climate during that time period ("Boyz n the Hood," "Election," "Clerks").

Did anyone out there grow up watching "Rappin' N' Rhymin'" on VHS? Chantel (Ariyan A. Johnson) would totally be a character on that show. She would think it's lame, but maybe they'd convince her to do it by offering college tuition money. I don't want to cause drama, but I think she would probably steal Damon away from Micki.

(Trust me and skip to 9:00 for the "Double Funky Rhyme Song." Tiny Tahj Mowry is in it and he is adorable.)

Where to watch:
Streaming for $1.99 on all the standard platforms.

Quick summary:
Chantel is a high school junior with lofty life ambitions. She wants to graduate early, become a doctor, and get the fuck out of the Brooklyn projects where she currently lives. Things go awry when she meets a cute dude with a Jeep, a brownstone, and a mom who spends a lot of time at her boyfriend's.

Thoughts:
A few weeks ago, my husband and I started watching "Enlightened" on HBO and had a 2-hour long discussion about whether or not it's possible to have a successful TV show or film with a female protagonist who is 100% unlikable and unapologetic about her flaws. In "Enlightened," Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) wants to do the right thing, but mainly for self-serving reasons. She doesn't care who she needs to hurt or exploit along the way (poor Tyler). We're never sure if she's authentic when she spins off into one of her hippy-dippy, 'I have the power to change the world,' monologues. Does she believe this shit, or is all just an act? Did she really meet turtle Jesus?

Enlightened-HBO-Laura-Dern-Mike-White

In "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.," we meet Chantel, another difficult female character. Like Amy, she has big dreams for her life and brashly believes she's capable of achieving them. She comes off as tough and sassy, interrupting her history class to draw attention to the plight of inner-city Black men, and telling a rude woman at the market that her husband is cheating on her. She's aggressive and loud, not afraid to flaunt her ego. She tells us many times how smart she is and how she's going to escape the projects and do something great with her life. Chantel is more than just a little extra, but she knows it and doesn't give a single fuck.

It's all talk, though. Chantel blathers on about the things she's going to do, but when it comes time to act responsibly and in line with her goals, she fails miserably. But she's also a teenager, so it's par for the course. She thinks she knows how life works even though she's barely experienced it. That if she works hard, she'll be handed the rewards she believes she deserves on a silver platter. That crappy, life altering things won't happen to her because she's special.

Chantel-Gold-Hoops-Just-Another-Girl-on-the-I.R.T.-Leslie-Harris

Amy Jellicoe is impossible to like because she's an adult and still makes horrible, narcissism-fueled decisions and refuses to believe that they could lead to a bad outcome. She's in her forties and should know better. I don't think it's impossible to like Chantel because she's young and her pregnancy seems like the first big life obstacle she's personally experienced.

Other critics have mentioned that they don't understand how the confident, strong girl from the first half of the movie could have been conned so easily into having unprotected sex with a guy she barely knows and then become paralyzed by unexpected pregnancy. Vincent Canby at the New York Times says,

Nothing about her pregnancy, or how she deals with it, quite matches the tough but consistently clear tone of the earlier part of the film. Chantel dawdles. In one believably crazy sequence, she takes the $500 Tyrone gives her for an abortion and goes on a shopping spree with her best friend, Natete (Ebony Jerido). After that, it's downhill.

This critique is surprising, because Chantel's paralyzed indecision over the pregnancy is what endeared me to this movie. It felt like a realistic trajectory for her character. Chantel doesn't see herself as "just another girl." She thinks she's special and immune to the same pitfalls as her peers. Deep denial seems like the exact response someone like her would have when confronted with unpleasant, life-altering news.

The second big question/critique is over her decision not to get an abortion with Ty's (Kevin Thigpen) money. She doesn't want to deal with pregnancy or the baby and the funds are available, so why wouldn't she make things easy on herself? Maybe because she's a kid, she's scared, and the only person she's been able to talk to is the woman at the free clinic who is technically not even allowed to mention abortion as an option. Chantel probably doesn't know much about abortion or what goes into obtaining one. Will the doctor tell her parents about it? Could she die? She probably feels overwhelmed with possibilities and questions, and without an informed resource, unable to choose.

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Teenagers tend to think in the moment instead of big picture and they don't respond well to outside pressure (aka Ty pushing Chantel to have the abortion), so time progresses and the window for change rapidly narrows. Chantel doesn't think about what will happen when the baby is actually born. The sole concern during her pregnancy is hiding the truth from her parents, which shows how immature she truly is.

After she has the baby, the movie goes slightly off the deep end. Chantel tries to make Ty throw it away in a trash bag, but he can't bear to do it. Then, there's a lame, tacked-on ending where we find out that Chantel is attending community college, on good terms with Ty, and doing her best to adjust to motherhood. If you ignore the lame postscript, "Just Another Girl" holds up as an in-depth look at a young, cocky teen girl who thinks she has life figured out until it knocks her on her ass.

Stray observations:

  • "Yeah, we want your money. Fuck you think this is?" If anything, this movie was worth watching because it introduced me to BWP (Bytches With Problems), an epic, lady rap duo. "We Want Money" and "No Means No" are feminist anthems for the ages.
  • I want Chantel's sunglasses:

Chantel-Sunglasses-Just-Another-Girl-on-the-I.R.T.-Leslie-Harris

  • "Those trains from Brooklyn is a motherfucker." True then, true now. Cool to see nothing has changed in twenty-five years.
  • Gerard kind of reminds me of Carlton from "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." Once you see it, you can't unsee it - trust me.
  • I love when Chantel and Gerard are fooling around in the laundry room and he accuses her of being a dick tease but she's like, 'Okay, I don't care. I have shit to do.'
  • There are so many mom jeans in this movie. Acid wash mom jeans and peace sign necklaces. I'm happy I wasn't a teenager in the 90s because I would have made so many bad decisions. I probably would have had an entire closet full of bedazzled vests.
  • I laughed for like five minutes when Gerard threw a bunch of pretzels at his face in anger after Chantel turned down his advances. Why hasn't someone made this into a GIF?
  • This movie makes me want to never have a baby. Seriously. The entire thing seems awful and I get a little panicky just thinking about it. I know kids can be great/magical for people who want them, but I think I'll stick with cats.
  • I hate to promote Charlie Rose, but his interview with Harris is worth watching. For the record, I agree with Paris Gellar.
    Paris: I saw you on Charlie Rose. You were good.
    Asher: Thank you.
    Paris: Not too self-important, you made your point, and managed to look remotely interested when Charlie babbled on pretentiously about nothing.

Charlie Rose is the king of pretentious babble, but he keeps it to a minimum in this interview.