Ariyan A. Johnson
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. March 9, 2020
hantel (Ariyan A. Johnson), the black high-school junior at the center of Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992), would leave behind her Brooklyn neighborhood tomorrow if she could. She’s pretty close, though: she’s in a position to graduate early. Chantel is at the top of her class; she gets the best grades “even in physics,” she tells us in a bit of fourth-wall-breaking. Chantel is eager to get to college, then realize
her dream of becoming a doctor.
Chantel has seen a number of her peers have their aspirations stymied — a lot of the time by accidental pregnancies, familial obligations, and/or finances — and worries about having her ambitions thwarted, too. She’s seen it firsthand with her parents, too. They both work jobs that they don’t like (her dad takes
night shifts, her mom day) and spend their off-hours disaffected and tired. Chantel often has to be a de facto parent to her two younger siblings.
Her vigilant drive, though, is frustrated by her youthful pomp. We watch Chantel as she risks her part-time food-service job one afternoon by returning a wealthy white customer’s bad attitude. She often picks fights with her history teacher and principal. (In all of these situations she’s in the right, but her unquestionable rightness is marred by the wrong-place-wrong-time effect.)
In the middle of Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., Chantel’s fears of having her goals inhibited are made real. A little after she starts seeing Tyrone (Kevin Thigpen), a charming older guy she meets at a party, she falls pregnant. Her uncertainty about what she should do becomes the primary conflict of the movie. The end of the film is framed as optimistically as it could be. What’s invigorating about the movie, which is the sole filmmaking effort from Leslie Harris, is the realism with which it douses Chantel’s decision making — right down to the way her pregnancy can in part be blamed on misinformation. (In one early scene, Chantel and her buddies discuss the methods you can use to ensure you don’t get pregnant — the majority of which are incorrect.)
Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. is afflicted, sometimes, by a feeling of stage-bound-ness. The performances, while effective, frequently have a presentational-acting broadness to them, which can undermine the otherwise persuasive pragmatism and attention to environmental detail of Harris’ direction. (The movie was shot for around $130,000; Harris testifies to the way you can authentically bring to the screen a milieu without a big budget to spare.) Still, Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. is powerful in how it portrays
Chantel’s worldview as a young black woman whose desires are poised to be impaired by unjust social institutions in spades. Johnson’s performance, made even more cogent by the fact that she’s actually the age she’s playing, radiates, with just-rightness, the paradox of being wise beyond your years while also being held back by both emotional immaturity and what resources are available to you as a young person.
When Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. ends, we see not the usual title card declaring “The End” but rather a note signed by Harris herself. “A Film Hollywood Dared Not Do,” it reads. Twenty-eight years later, such a statement holds up, which then underscores the reality that Harris was not given another opportunity to make another movie. This has been the way it’s so often gone for black women filmmakers from Julie Dash to Kathleen Collins — that a chance is given to make a movie of staggering individuality only to not get another. The film’s boldness and commitment to realism undoubtedly opened doors for the kinds of stories that could be told down the road. This should not have been all we got to see from Harris. Imperfections aside, it’s plenty clear with Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. that she is not just a director with a singular voice but also the rare moviemaker with the drive to make the kinds of narratively important movies Hollywood dare not do. B+