Made for $250,000, the film was financed over an arduous three-year period during which director Leslie Harris flooded organisations with grant proposals. Some paid off, precipitating assistance from The American Film Institute, The National Endowment for the Arts, The New York State Council on the Arts and The Jerome Foundation. Investment was also obtained from author Terry McMillan, Michael Moore and Nelson George. Harris also shot and edited a black and white short version of the film that was sent to numerous potential investors, a tactic familiar to many American independent filmmakers emerging at the time. Some of these directors went to to work consistently and secure a foothold. Many, like Harris, struggled to work again in a white, patriarchal industry.
Shot over 17 days on colour Super 16mm in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the film aims to capture the vitality and coming of age of Chantel (an incredible, force of nature performance from Ariyan Johnson), a streetsmart black teenage home girl who every Saturday rides the IRT subway from her home in the Brooklyn projects to a job on Manhattan’s West Side. Offering zingy comment on the accoutrements of Hip Hop culture (a well chosen soundtrack of mostly female performers provides fitting aural accompaniment) are Chantel’s gaggle of vivacious girlfriends, but their knowledge of more pressing issues such as AIDS and contraception are less informed and Chantel finds herself pregnant after a night of passion with new squeeze Tyrone (Kevin Thigpen), who soon neglects her.
Filmed in an urgent vérité style with first person narration and direct camera address and informed by real-life tales of young New York mothers being forced to abandon their children, Just Another Girl On The I.R.T prompts telling and cautionary insights into teenage sexuality. To ensure educational value and authenticity in this regard, Harris worked with advisors from Planned Parenthood and Brooklyn Teen Pregnancy Network. The writer-director consciously sidesteps the violent guns and drugs terrain being mined in films such as Straight out of Brooklyn (1991) and Juice (1992), providing something all too rarely seen on screen at the time; a multi-dimensional African American female character drawn from a female perspective.
The film’s upbeat denouement proved divisive on release, with some sensing an inability of the film to marry polemic with execution whilst others, myself included, saw it as a conscious attempt to portray the lives of young black American women in a positive light and to suggest the possibility of hope and change.
The film closes with the line ‘the film Hollywood dared not make’ and it has, with few exceptions, continued to dare not make them.
Written by Jason Wood, Artistic Director: Film at HOME and Professor of Film at Manchester Metropolitan University.
This essay is an edited version of a piece that originally appeared in 100 American Independent Films, BFI Publishing, 2004.