Let’s jump right into this. The Incredible Jessica James, a Sundance Festival favourite from January 2017, premiered on Netflix on July 28, 2017. This indie film stars Jessica Williams of The Daily Show notoriety, and with amazing critical reviews, I ignored some of the red flags of the trailer because I was so excited to see a flick starring an off-beat, alternative Black girl, so I took the plunge and watched it the day of its Netflix premiere.
Pro-tip movie lovers: Sometimes, you can read a book by its cover. At the film’s opening, our protagonist, Jessica James, is processing a recent breakup from a long-term relationship with Damon (LaKeith Stanfield). Due to the fact that she brings Tinder dates to Damon’s favourite bar, and that he has a new girlfriend, the audience is initially under the impression that Damon broke things off with Jessica. Not only does this assumption prove to be incorrect, in all 83 minutes of the film, of Jessica’s vivid dreams of Damon being hurt after professing his love, we are never given a concrete reason for their breakup, other than Jessica’s personal insecurities and dissatisfaction with self. We also learn that the desperate, whiny Damon that Jessica often dreams of isn’t representative of the real Damon, a man whom turns out to be very considerate, caring, and unentitled long after their breakup. Read: It wasn’t him, it was her. Literally.
Despite this, Damon is still very much in love with Jessica, whom, like many self-destructive people, would rather be in the wrong relationship rather than the right one, or alone. As a result of her own brokenness, Jessica enters into the quintessential “It’s complicated” relationship with Boone (Chris O’Dowd), a recently divorced app developer. The two have next to nothing in common, other than being on the rebound, and habitually stalking their exs on Instagram. They also have humour; Boone’s very easy wit and Jessica’s incredibly forced, over-the-top attempts at being a quirky hipster Black girl.
Which brings me to one of the many issues I had with this film. Jessica James isn’t a believable character. She says “AF” when “as fuck” requires the same amount of syllables and isn’t as juvenile. She actually uses the term “boyf”, a shortened version of “boyfriend” and one that even self-respecting White hipsters avoid. She lives in Bushwick and yet has no Black friends or even a Black stylist (see featured struggle locs). She is from Ohio, which has far less Black people and people of colour in general than New York, but we don’t get any of the film’s much-needed colour in New York unless we are either seeing the “underpriviled” Black and Latinx children whom she teaches theatre to in Hell’s Kitchen or Jessica is visiting her family. So either children who chose to work with her, or a family she had no choice in being related to. Those are the only people of colour Jessica has, besides her ex. We see more Black people in Jessica’s mother’s living room in, I repeat, Ohio, than on the streets of Bushwick. Even the background characters are melanin-deficient. Pause.
Jessica, being a playwright, naturally gravitates to others in theatre, and since there are absolutely no Black actors in New York City at all, her BFF is a struggling actress named Tasha (Noel Wells). Though carrying a stereotypical “Black girl” name, Tasha gives some us some serious fragile White woman vibes. Even though race is never once discussed in any of Jessica’s relationships, and Boone seems mature enough to (possibly) discuss race and racism with intellectual honesty had Jessica ever initiated the conversation, Tasha definitely looks like the sort who would start sobbing in the fetal position if White women’s role in upholding White supremacy was ever brought up. Definitely the “I don’t see colour” short of gal. The two spend a lot of time at bland White lesbian bars, where Jessica is the only colour in the room, in more ways than one.
As for Jessica’s work, her character only seems like a genuine person and not some Black bohemian caricature when she is discussing her play writing and working with the kids in her theatre group. Unfortunately, Jessica’s genuine self is one that has zero expectation of the White people in her life, but projects all of her own insecurities and rampant sense of failure onto those children in an inadvertently really controlling way. Jessica wants Damon to fix something which she admits isn’t his fault. Jessica wants one of her star pupils, Shandra (Taliyah Whitaker), to behave and feel as an adult and not a 10 year old child. But Jessica is totally okay with her love interest, Boone, hooking up with his ex wife and even rewards him for it by allowing him to read every single play she’s ever written. Pause.
Listen, I could go on all day about what a monumental let-down The Incredible Jessica James was, but let’s discuss how it could have been better. Similar to The Mindy Show, we are presented with a woman of colour who is the only women of colour in her chosen circles. Living in New York City as a Black person and having no Black friends is a choice. A telling one. While I initially tuned in to this film because I had the highest hopes and Jessica Williams is gorgeous, Jessica James is one of the most unattractive Black woman characters I’ve had the displeasure of viewing. How to make this movie better? Give us a Jessica James with colour in her life, who doesn’t used forced humour as a defense mechanism and who doesn’t tokenize herself in order to feel special and worthy. Some nice Poetic Justice braids or goddess locs would have really helped make this film more enjoyable for me as well, aesthetically. The entire film was vastly, deeply, underwhelming at best and, in the obvious way they avoided talking about Blackness or having a diverse Black supporting cast, tragic at worst.
I’m not sure (yes, I am; White supremacy!) why alternative Black person always translates to annoying token in film, I know this is not art imitating life. Race aside, this film would been just as lackluster had Jessica been White. There is nothing incredible about Jessica James or this film.
I give this one 2.75 stars because it’s Sunday and I feel generous.