Leslie Harris’ debut film, featuring a knock-out performance by Ariyan A. Johnson, hasn’t lost a hint of its revolutionary spirit since it was first released in 1993.
Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell explores Leslie Harris’ Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.
Over 30 years later, Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. is still an electrifying story. Leslie Harris’ film heralded a major moment for cinema when it released in 1993 as a film directed by a Black woman receiving a nation wide release for the first time. In the end credits, Harris put it that she made a film “Hollywood dared not do.” Decades later though, it still feels like a story Hollywood is uninterested in telling.
Which is disappointing because I.R.T. is just the kind of story Hollywood desperately needs to invest in. The industry can’t keep recycling the same stories, told by the same people. We need more films focused on communities typically unrepresented, or underserved, by Hollywood. That’s why Harris’ film was such a revolutionary moment for independent cinema. We’d never seen such an authentic portrait of Black teenage lives before, told from the perspective of a Black woman. That authenticity flows out in tides of raw emotions throughout the film, but it’s genesis came from Harris own life.
As she mentioned in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine:
“When I was in high school, a friend of mine became pregnant. And we were actually, like, the kind of smart kids at school. It really profoundly affected me when I found out she was pregnant—just how it changed her life, the whole responsibility of it. I remember us just being young girls in her bedroom when we found out she was pregnant. At that point, we had so many dreams and aspirations, and I asked myself: Was she really going to continue to do all those things?”
The raw emotions of this real moment in Harris’ life is actualized midway through I.R.T. The movie begins with scenes of Chantel (Ariyan A. Johnson) enjoying her most authentic self. She gossips with her best friends and flexes her acerbic personality to school officials. She starts a relationship with a guy who’s both hot, and the proud owner of a Jeep. But, midway through the film, she comes face to face with reality.
After spending a night with her beau, we come to a scene of Chantel vomiting in her school’s restroom. Anyone who’s seen a movie about adolescent sexuality knows just where this is going. Despite doing everything right to avoid a life she wants to escape, anxiety crashes over Chantel as she realizes she’s pregnant.
Up until this moment, Johnson’s performance hinges on razor sharp energy that practically leaps off the screen. That was by Harris’ design. Throughout the film, Johnson’s Chantel frequently breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience. It creates the immersive quality of being a fly on the wall, helping establish a verite realness to the film. Chantel may be hyperbolic and a little extra, but it never feels like forced affectation. Johnson’s performance simply feels like the antics we all got up to as confident teenagers who feel invincible and unstoppable.
Breaking the fourth wall brings us into Chantel’s friend group, but Johnson’s sharp wit still keeps us at arms length. She may want to show us her life, but she’s not asking for our help. However, once Chantel discovers her pregnancy, her walls of confidence start to crumble. As the realization of what’s happening to her crystallizes in her mind, we see a harrowing expression wash over her face. Johnson so fully realizes Chantel’s anguish, fear, and profound sense of loss that it takes our breath away. We’ve seen Chantel’s authentic self in every preceding scene. But in this moment, Johnson doesn’t show us the person Chantel projects out into the world. She shows us the real person all of Chantel’s projection protects. This revelation propels the film towards its equally tragic and uplifting finale.
It’s at this turning point that many critics who reviewed I.R.T in its original run became disconnected with the story. They just couldn’t wrap their heads around Chantel’s indecision over what to do about her pregnancy. But I find this exact beat to be the most relevant and intriguing moment in the film. Yes, Chantel does feel paralyzed by the choice she must make. But the point Harris’ story highlights is that it is her choice, and no one else’s, full stop.
While it may be frustrating to watch brilliant characters make human errors, I believe this is ultimately Harris’ conceit in the film. It’s voiced by social worker Paula (Chequita Jackson), who meets Chantel after she learns she’s pregnant. As Chantel describes her life’s ambitions, she says with rueful recognition, “I fucked up.” Paula stops her right there, saying, “You had sex and got pregnant, that’s all.” Paula is underlining for Chantel that these things happen and that she didn’t do anything wrong. Her future is not over just because her life has taken a left turn.
The final sequence of the film is an agonizing moment of pain as we watch Chantel go into premature labor. In these scenes, Johnson leaves everything on the screen. Her guttural screams are like twisting daggers piercing our hearts. But as shocking as it is to watch, it’s vital the audience doesn’t turn away. Harris is showing us a reality of living in America that never appears on screen, and it’s as illuminating as it is devastating. This alone justifies the lingering sentiment Harris leaves us with. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. is a story “Hollywood dared not do.”
Based on the political and social climate of the early 1990s, I’m not completely shocked that critics found it hard to reconcile the second act of the film with the first. Harris’ debut was lauded for bringing in new stories moviegoers had never heard before. But many critics still didn’t seem to be ready to actually hear that story. That’s why I don’t find it hyperbolic to say it’s a crime Harris has not been given the funds to create another movie since I.R.T.
Harris’ film, especially after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, feels just as vital and necessary to the cultural conversation as it did over thirty years ago. Audiences may have felt frustrated, or even disagreed, with how Chantel handles the choice she has to make, but that was Harris’ point. It’s not up to other people to tell a woman what is right and wrong with her body. That’s something she deserves to decide for herself. All Leslie Harris did was show unknowing audiences the reality of a world she understood all too well. One filled with stories that deserve to be told, but in which Hollywood still struggles, and refuses, to tell today.
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