Perhaps the most ironic thing about Netflix’s most recent film, The Incredible Jessica James, is how un-incredible it actually is. The film tells the story of a young woman in her mid-20s, played by Jessica Williams, living in New York and Trying To Figure It All Out. She’s recently been dumped, she’s in the midst of a series of job rejections, she eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. It’s a story that we’ve all seen a thousand times before, thanks to directors such as Lena Dunham, Noah Baumbach and Desiree Akhavan. But what does make this film incredible is that this tale of a mid-20s crisis is centred around a black woman.
Black women in film are rarely given the opportunity to be messy. While this is being changed on TV thanks to shows like Chewing Gum, Insecure and Brown Girls, and the raucous recent release Girls Trip is a long-overdue step in the right direction, black women in film are generally either pillars of strength and “sassiness” or victims of oppression – we’re setting fire to our husbands' clothes and carefully manipulating our love lives à la Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale and Vivica A. Fox in Two Can Play That Game, or we’re having to fight all our lives like Whoopi and Oprah in The Colour Purple.
That’s not to discredit the works of directors like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees and Julie Dash, who have created beautiful depictions of black women living authentic lives, but as a woman in her mid-20s whose life is far from figured out, I’ve always found solace in films such as Appropriate Behaviour and Frances Ha (and even Dunham’s Girls to an extent), while feeling that these women were never quite… well, me.
The Incredible Jessica James more than fills this void – with Daily Show alum Jessica Williams’ performance sure to join others like Greta Gerwig’s Frances and Desiree Akhavan’s Shirin as women who know what they want but don’t quite know how to get there. Just like both these characters, she seeks a career in the arts while dealing with rejection, not just from various companies who don’t want to stage her plays (in a nice touch, director Jim Strouse has Jessica methodically stick each rejection letter on her wall) but from her ex-boyfriend Damon. Along the way, she finds a potential new flame in Chris O’Dowd’s Boone and manages to remind herself of the fact that she is “a coco queen”.
Aside from Appropriate Behaviour, which deliberately focuses on the way in which Shirin’s Iranian heritage conflicts with her being bisexual, the mid-20s genre film is one where race and class are erased, save for a token extra, like Akhavan’s cameo in Girls, or Megalyn Echikunwoke’s role in Damsels in Distress. Here, we’re given a protagonist who just so happens to be black. The Incredible Jessica James isn’t a black film, despite featuring a black protagonist as well as several black supporting characters, like the always excellent Lakeith Stanfield as Damon. It really could be about everyone.
It is easy to forget how crucial representation is in every area of cinema. While I cheered just as hard as everyone else did when Viola Davis won an Oscar for her tremendous work in Fences, and I enjoyed watching all of the films I’ve mentioned here, it truly meant a lot to me to see a black woman in film who is flawed but trying her best. She’s not a symbol of flawlessness for viewers to strive to be – she is us. “You’re kind of annoying”, the mother of one of Jessica’s students tells her. “I know…” she says, without missing a beat. She’s not apologetic about this fact.
By not tying Jess entirely to her race – but not ignoring it either – director Strouse allows Jessica to be a fully rounded character. While she mourns her relationship, she’s not entirely defined by it, and while she’s frustrated by not achieving her true dream of becoming a playwright, she’s not bitter and she still works by teaching acting classes to children. She is not a woman who is defined by the men she sleeps with or the job that she does. “I’m really complicated”, she tells Boone after giving him a collection of plays to read. And what a delight it is to get to watch a complicated black woman try and work it all out on screen. If Jessica James is the face of a new kind of film about millennial women in crisis, then the future looks to be incredible.
The Incredible Jessica James is currently streaming on Netflix.