Writer-director Jim Strouse didn’t have to look far for his next leading lady – after she had impressed everybody in her supporting role as Kat in his critically acclaimed feature comedy People, Places, Things (2015). Not to be mistaken for People, Places and Things, Duncan Macmillan’s 2015 West End play.
Actress-comedienne Jessica Williams, the first ever black female correspondent on The Daily Show (2012-16), stars as the title character in Strouse’s romantic comedy The Incredible Jessica James (2017), whom we first meet in a personality-defining opening sequence – full of life and positive energy. Jess is an Ohio native and playwright, struggling to have her plays produced in the US theatre capital, New York, indulging in the ritual decoration of a shrinking section of apartment wall with yet another rejection letter. To feed her passion, she writes and teaches a small group of school age local kids on a community playwright programme, including a troubled Shandra, played by the very engaging Taliyah Whitaker. Jess is also grieving a break up with boyfriend of 2 years, Damon (Lakeith Stanfield – Straight Outta Compton, 2015, Crown Heights, 2017). Believing Damon might have been the love of her life, most of her social energy is taken up with missing Damon and day dreaming increasingly outrageous, laugh-out-loud funny, post-breakup encounters.
Cue gay BFF Tasha (a cute, likeable Noël Wells) setting her up with recent divorcée Boone (Chris O’Dowd), her commentary on the current state of American theatre, reflections on whether it reciprocates the consuming passion she has for it, and how she and the kids prepare for the culmination of the writing programme.
For those of us starved of seeing a darker skinned black woman play the romantic lead in a genuine, non-spoof comedy, The Incredible Jessica James will tick a lot of boxes – it is a hugely enjoyable, largely well-observed film. This is mainly because Williams performs with a warmth and commitment to Jess and her beautifully decorated dreads, making her immediately and consistently likeable, even when declaring her 25-year-young pretensions (“There’s nothing more important to me than the truth….” Then, “There’s nothing more important to me than the theatre…” etc.) She manages to use the right essence of being a comic with the art of a consummate actor, and translates well into a film role (as does most talent sourced from The Daily Show). It’s also obvious that she would have no problem handling a dramatic role as she experiences the inevitable downs of cinematic romances, which arrive on cue. Still, the comedic material works and the exchanges between Jess and Tasha, and Jess and Boone, crackle.
If you are looking for Stanfield in romantic mode, you will definitely get a taste for what he is capable of amidst his soulful angst and continuing his talent for comedy as the hapless target of Jess’s day dreams. No doubt, O’Dowd’s County Roscommon Irishness sets him up perfectly for romantic roles in Hollywood. But actually, it’s his sincerity, awkwardness and genuine chemistry with Williams, which almost makes you forget the 15 year age gap, amongst other things. Strouse manages to capture the human condition in these sequences with a wry wit – grown up, consistent and authentic without being cringe-inducing or offensive.
On the whole, the drama also worked well, although Jess’s return home for little sister (Susan Heyward)’s, baby shower stopped the narrative momentum cold, when it should have explained something about Jess. There was really very little chemistry between Jess and her family, stemming more from the material than what we could glean from her history. These stilted scenes, along with the casting of both a white BFF and potential for a successful romantic relationship, are what sour this otherwise fragrant movie with the whiff of white saviourism – family/ex-boyfriend vs BFF/potential boyfriend….
At times I was reminded of a gentler, more feminised 20th century Spike Lee production, particularly in the cinematography, which rendered the modern, cleaned up New York beautiful without losing its arty realism or grit. In the end, it fell short because, although thought-provoking, Jess was given only patriarchy, specifically the male gaze, and the state of theatre to care about, but steered completely clear of race or the female gaze. Completely! We don’t even get to hear her creative voice, which would have been a perfect, non-threatening (if you like), vehicle for the issue, any issue, of a country where African-Americans still struggle for acceptance and equality. Instead, after reading only a box file which supposedly represents her entire body of work from childhood, we get Boone’s sparsely worded verdict, which steers dangerously close to a negative stereotype, only missing it because it is O’Dowd delivering the line.
Whilst Tasha ticked the gender/sexuality box, simply casting an actress of Williams’ aesthetic wasn’t quite enough for me, given Jess’s black womanhood in modern America. Spike Lee wouldn’t have struggled with this, and yet would still have made a relatable, funny story about young people navigating specific modern environments (see my personal Lee favourites and instant classics – Chi-raq, 2016, School Daze, 1988). Perhaps this is what gives the movie its gentler, more superficial, feel and the area in which the writer-director’s white manhood is most felt.
That this movie could possibly tell a modern tale and make misogynoir completely invisible as an issue might be symptomatic of who the real target audience, consciously or unconsciously, might be, and ultimately, it is this which will keep The Incredible Jessica James firmly in the lightweight, superficially enjoyable, division, which, actually, is OK by me.
It’s interesting that this should be Williams’ first star vehicle, as my stand-out memory of her as a correspondent on the brilliant Daily Show was under Jon Stewart in the kind of studio segment they do so well. Williams sits, as the straight ‘guest’/pundit in a discussion dealing with the dismissal of African American opinion, protest, and logic, alongside a white male guest. Every question Williams answers, which in some way describes exactly what is unfolding on screen, Stewart (I think) meets with confusion, until the white male pundit (probably Jordan Klepper) ‘innocently’ dumbs down her answer, passing it off as his own. Then, Eureka, Stewart miraculously gets it and praises his brilliance. Or something like that….
Still, go see The Incredible Jessica James – it’s definitely a crowd-pleaser, no mean feat for an independent film, and is branded Strouse’s ‘love letter to his leading lady,’ for a reason. After a bidding war following its exhibition on the first day of the Sundance Film Festival, premieres section January this year, Netflix snapped up worldwide distribution rights to the film/ It will be branded as a Netflix original movie and air later this year, so click “+My List” , and you will be notified when it becomes available! Hopefully by then, a full cast list in which the other black actors are properly listed, will also become available.
The Incredible Jessica James will premiere on Netflix on July 28.
Listen to The British Blacklist’s new podcast #TBB10 where we speak briefly to Jessica Williams about her role and black women’s hair…