'Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.' Should Have Been a '90s Teen Classic

Twenty-five years later, Leslie Harris's film is still a rare portrait of a young black girl that avoids stereotypes.

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Mar 13 2018, 5:15pm

Photos courtesy of Miramax

Welcome to "Reel Women," a column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.

It’s a shame that the name “Chantel Mitchell” doesn’t ring bells like her fellow ’90s teen comedy classmates Cher Horowitz or Laney Boggs, though Chantel, the protagonist of Leslie Harris’s 1993 debut film Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., has enough spirit and sass to warrant a spot in the roster’s top tier. And it doesn’t take very long to find that out. “I’m a Brooklyn girl…” Chantel tells us almost as soon as the movie starts (the I.R.T. is a New York subway line, which she takes from her home and school in Brooklyn to her bougie gourmet grocery shop job in Manhattan). She defiantly chews gum, stands with her hands on her hips, and looks straight at the camera as she sports a colorful bucket hat and a mint green shirt under a romper—an outfit unquestionably of its time. Then, still looking right at the camera—a fourth-wall breaking method employed throughout the film—she lifts up her finger and shakes it in the viewer’s face. “I let nobody mess with me and I do what I want, when I want.”

She does just that, at all times, including hijacking her high school history class even when the teacher tells her she’s wildly off-topic. The class discussion is about World War II, but Chantel wants to talk about the present-day prejudice against African-Americans like herself. “Aren’t we all in this together?” she asks, urging for societal change—and though she’s addressing her teacher, she again looks straight at the camera, as if to hold every one of us accountable. Chantel is confrontational and contradictory (the best teen depictions in film are messy ones, after all). She’s not a stranger to the principal’s office, but she’s not a teenage delinquent, either. In fact, she’s one of the brightest students at school, and even plans on graduating a year early. Unlike many other 17-year-old kids who don’t know what they want to do with their lives, Chantel has a whole life plan mapped out: she’ll go to college, then med school, and eventually become a doctor. And she knows she’s defying expectations, too. "People be trippin' when they find out how smart I really am!" she says.

Chantel resides in the projects with her parents, who live paycheck to paycheck, and wants nothing more than to get out and lead a different lifestyle. Her home isn’t a broken one, but Chantel is ambitious and wants more, declaring that she’ll become her own boss.

But Chantel doesn't fall into tired honor student tropes. When she’s called into the principal’s office, she throws the word “fuck” around with abandon, and she dates multiple guys and has sex. There’s even a frank and hilarious conversation between Chantel and her friends about the use of condoms and birth control pills. They talk as crudely as real teenage girls do, with an almost irresponsible curiosity for sex—something that comes to bite Chantel in the ass later on, when she becomes pregnant. A flatter characterization of Chantel would only color her as studious or promiscuous, but Leslie Harris, who wrote and directed the film, turns her heroine into someone a lot harder to pin down—a smart rebel who’s confident, cheeky, and loud-mouthed one moment and then completely unsure of her life the next. Harris shoots her in a vérité style that makes the viewer feel like they’re just hanging out with Chantel, with a hip-hop soundtrack that gives the film rhythm. It’s a fun coming-of-age film with style that doesn’t shy away from serious issues.

The second, more dramatic half of the film opens up very real and necessary conversations about reproductive rights, and Chantel does say quotable feminist lines about how it’s her decision to do what she wants with the baby. But there are no easy answers here, or even overt messages about the outcomes of sex. Instead, the film just lets Chantel live, even when that means she makes stupid choices, like using her abortion money on a shopping spree, and her even stupider method of trying to get rid of her unwanted child—by putting it in a garbage bag and throwing it out on the street. Seventeen is the age to make mistakes, and Chantel makes plenty, but she eventually bounces back. She definitely faces consequences for her sexual behavior, but she isn’t punished for it by being left to choose between motherhood and academia.

Just Another Girl should’ve been a teen classic on par with Clueless or She’s All That—a slice of teen life in the ’90s that’s both entertaining and important. Its director should’ve gone on to make way more movies (her only other credit is a Bessie Coleman short she made for Showtime the year after). On its 25th anniversary, the film deserves re-discovery, and, good news, Alamo Drafthouse will be hosting a 35mm screening of this hidden gem on March 14 with director/writer Leslie Harris in person. Harris was riding her own wave at the time of the film’s release. Black directors were rare, Black female directors even rarer, and Black movies of this era, like Boyz N the Hood and Juice, were macho movies. Harris recently told The New York Times that even though Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It is also about a woman, it still feels like a male-directed movie. She also told the Times that she was asked by a studio to make Chantel’s boyfriend Tyrone a drug dealer—meaning she would’ve had to lean into a stereotype—but she refused, and ended up having to raise money for the film by herself.

If this were a fairer world, Harris would’ve become a bigger name after receiving Sundance buzz in 1993, but she disappeared from the industry even though her debut, which won a special jury prize at the festival, showed promise for a prolific career. “After I did that movie, I wrote several screenplays but little happened,” Harris told the Times in a frank interview. “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.”

Her sentiment remains similar to a 1993 interview she did with The New York Times: “I was just tired of seeing the way Black women were depicted, as wives or mothers or girlfriends or appendages. All from the point of view of male directors. She's the central character. There's no male character to validate her." Twenty-five years later, Harris is still trying to make her follow-up film, I Love Cinema, a movie about sex, race, and politics (she’s been publicly raising money for it since 2013, already five years ago). Long-time fans and new discoverers of I.R.T. are ready for a new Leslie Harris film—hopefully the wait is coming to an end.