Filmmaker Leslie Harris picked Truth 24 F.P.S. (frames per second) as the moniker for her Brooklyn-based production company because thats what shes interested in truth, without a lot of frills or confusion. Picture this: a hand-held close-up on the perfect, clear image of a young girls face. She laughs while she dances, causing a ripple of chaos through the crowd. She sweats the boys. This is Chantel. Just 17, you know what I mean precocious as hell, sharp as a tack, weekend job, laundry-room lover. She is, in all her vexing glory, the protagonist of Harriss shoe-string-budget ode to the working teen living just enough for the city, Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.
"We didnt need a helicopter." Sitting in her Miramax distributors office early one bright October morning, the 32-year old, Ohio-born auteur tells the tale of the making of Just Another Girl, a story of single-mindedness in the face of bullshit. "When I wrote the script I knew I would have a limited budget, limited locations. It was really a challenge but I think I took a disadvantage and turned it into an advantage." Harris was a fine arts major at Denison College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio until her last year when she began working with film and video. After college, she came to New York to work for a high-powered ad agency that was looking for more "people of color" (as she diplomatically phrased it). But when the ad world turned out not to be her poison of preference, she quit with another goal in mind. "Basically when I started I just wanted to do a film about young black women. Thats a story that hasnt been told. I started off with two temp jobs, this idea for a script, and no money."
And, like a dream, doors opened up for the young director: Hollywood starlets were fist-fighting on Melrose for the coveted lead role; Julia Roberts was thinking of plastic surgery to have her nose broadened or not. "People werent really receptive to the idea of doing a film about a woman," Harris recounts. Going back to the dry days of 1988 black film anti-vista, when Spike Lee was the only game in town, Harris says, "They said to make it male I heard this!" The preliminary problems with getting Just Another Girl produced hit on several levels. First, Harris wanted to avoid the clichéd drug obsession accompanying male violence of most "street" films, but no one seemed interested in such a film. Second, she ran into a straight-up sexist blockade: "I knew I always wanted to do a feature-length film that seems kind of obvious but for a woman I really wasnt encouraged. People feel that a woman cant handle a feature-length. I was told, Hey, why dont you make it into a documentary? Except for Julie Dash, we havent really had an African-American woman who has done a feature-length, black-woman film."
Ah, the miracle of distribution, the indie nirvana not only did Harris slave over the making of it, but people will actually see this one. How did Harris get from writing scenes on her coffee breaks to national release? A member of Woman Make Movies and the Black Filmmakers Foundation, Harris took moral support where she couldnt find financial support, screwed up her courage to the sticking place, and went forward. "I received a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council that was one of my first, which was a really small grant. Then I started to apply to other places the Jerome Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, American Association of American Video and Filmmakers, emerging artists grants." She rattles down the list. "I submitted a script to the American Film Institute and I was so happy when I got the phone call that I could go out and start shooting."
With only a couple of grand in hand, Harris and her producer, Erwin Wilson, began their 17-day makeover of Fort Greene-Bed Stuy, the boys town of Do the Right Thing, in the filmmakers image. Highschoolers all, Chantel (Aruyan Johnson), her best friend, Natete (Ebony Jerido), and a third friend sit out in Fort Greene Park talking about various forms of birth control for the randy young female. Seventeen-year-old Natete, on the flooze, hitting full-on hormonal craze, suggests just shaking up a bottle of pop and spraying it up the contested area after the deed is done, foregoing anything as banal as condoms, diaphragm, or coitus interruptus.
Just Another Girl has a smoking soundtrack: Eric Sadler of P.E. "Fight the Power" fame served as music supervisor; Nikki D. performed the original "Just Another Girl from Another World" and the brilliant "Daddys Little Girl;" BWP and Angie D are in the mix of "Mixed Up World." But this is no smoking-gun, urban scarescape film. No garbage can breaks the White Fathers window. No black youths shoot each other. The questions are more of a domestic nature. Where does the food disappear to at four in the morning? Is that anorexia or some other type of female fuckery? Is that sound morning sickness or Memorex? A womans body still serves as a fearful and mysterious excavation to such an extent that Harris didnt even have to go outside to find her images of "ghetto living" and black humor in all senses of the word.
The filmmaker knows that Hip Hop culture is a youth culture after 21, 22, youre already too oldand so in the film, the older black folks, full of worries and fear, are depressing. Chantel looks around here and decides shes not going out broke and fighting like her folks. "Seventeen at that age what happens to an individual really reflects what happens in their future life," Harris explains. For her, the pubescent girl-woman is the most edgy and clear place to get at he truth of "coming of age." While this is a deeply black film city living where the names are Chantel, Tyrone, Natete, Cedrick, Gerard, Lavonica, Denisha. Rashawn, Amiri the experience is universal. How can a girl that is so intelligent act so dumb? Chantel is very ambitious (pre-med designs in high school, good grades, etc.), but she is far from above judging the world and its mother by what kind of ride or sneakers or triple-goose-down parka they have. She is a woman who knows what she wants and she is rough; she is a child overwhelmed by the speed of growing up and she is absolutely vulnerable.
The films understated critique of the teens materialistic world goes hand-in-hand with its celebration of the sheer fun of fun, topped with an added sheen of speed and desperation thats part of the urban trip. Harris spent time in Planned Parenthood and other teen sex counseling facilities doing research to back up her impressions. The gag rule, the disrespect, the humiliating bureaucracy of the clinics, especially for the poor all contribute to an environment of general madness and denial. "I think in a lot of films you have teenagers who appear to be older than they are, or act older," she points out, breaking down the saccharine teen prototype. "I wanted a 17-year-old, and from a creative stand point, I wanted to avoid delineating bad girl or good girl. Its as if you cant have a central character whos not good at all, and from my experience I think people are a combination of bad and good."
In her search for "realness," Just Another Girl is hot cinéma-vérité style. "I wanted a quasi-documentary feel," she says. "The feeling that youre experiencing this girls life along with her. I wanted to have the film very bright, not dark and bleak, just a difference in perspective of how life goes on." There is a good deal of hand-held camera snaking past the punch bowl or around the playground wall to catch Chantel and her friends unaware. At the same time, Harris also employs the very self-conscious technique of direct address. Chantel serves as mediator between her story and the audience, explaining what this all means as shes doing it, adding an ironic silent narrative on the fallout between what she says shes doing and what the audience sees her doing.
Another reason for the films "ghetto realism" is the reality of no money. Harris says she had about $130,000 in total, but two-thirds of her way through production she ran clean out of dough. Someone suggested that she do a baby X and get on the phone to the less financially-challenged brothers and sisters. Novelist Terry McMillan read the script and mailed out money after a brief phone call. Michael Moore (Roger and Me) added to the kitty. And so did screenwriter, critic, and Fort Greene resident Nelson George. "These pieces of money helped, but of course you never have enough," Harris laughs.
She recalls finishing the shoot, then holding herself up in her apartment in order to do the rough edit. "My home, which had been the residence of dollies, tripods, cameras, now had no food in the refrigerator, but cans of short ends. I actually had enough money to get a Steenbeck put in my apartment. I couldnt believe I was attempting to edit without an assistant or anything. I wanted to get an editor involved but I couldnt afford one." Like the prince on the eleventh hour of a fairy tale, like Richard Gere at the end of Pretty Woman, Miramax, after reading about the plight of this struggling filmmaker in Amy Taubins trade column in the Village Voice, made her acquaintance. "We got an editor and cut it down to ninety-five minutes." Harris tells the happy ending. "[Miramax President] Harvey Weinstein came to look at the film and said, I want it." When Just Another Girl opens in February, Leslie Harris and America will have another first.
Beth Coleman is a freelance journalist living in New York.