Leslie Harris’ debut feature “Just Another Girl On The I.R.T.”, celebrates its 24th Anniversary today; it was released in the USA on March 19, 1993.
For non-New Yorkers, The “I.R.T.” in the film’s title refers to the Interborough Rapid Transit Company’s Lexington Avenue Line of the New York City Subway system.
Written, produced, and directed by Harris, the film follows Chantel Mitchell (played by Ariyan A. Johnson) a teenage girl coping with life in a poor Brooklyn, New York neighborhood, sustained by her intense desire to become successful by going to college, eventually becoming a doctor, and leaving the environment in which she lives. Chantel is incredibly smart, although her occasional naivete and sharp tongue (leading to clashes even with those who can help her) undermine her efforts.
Throughout the film, Chantel, who lives with her struggling working class parents and her two younger brothers, breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience, sharing her desires and fears. To assist her family, she’s given the responsibility of taking care of her brothers, while also working a part-time job at a local grocery store (while going to school full-time). Despite the challenges, she still earns mostly As and Bs in school, as she’s determined to go to college. Her dreams are tested when she becomes pregnant by her boyfriend Tyrone (Kevin Thigpen).
The film was shot entirely in New York City in just 17 days, with a budget of only $100,000.
It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 1992, and would be picked up and released by Miramax Films (which was run by the Weinstein Brothers at the time) on March 19, 1993. It received mixed reviews at the time of its release. Those who appreciated it, praised its grit and rawness – especially the frank discussions teen characters have about sex and socio-economic realities – as well as its star, Ariyan A. Johnson’s vivid performance; they also applauded the rare film that put its spotlight on girls like Chantel who are/were too often just bystanders in other movies of its ilk (remember these were the early 1990s in film history which have been reductively labeled the “hood movie” period, following the success of John Singleton’s feature debut, “Boyz n the Hood” which seemingly led to studio executives scrambling for films telling similar stories). Meanwhile, those who didn’t care for the film called it crude and rough around the edges (although, around that time, for films with its budget, you’d expect some of that; this was all before digital video); others didn’t believe the story and characters as written were convincing enough, although well-intentioned.
But it’s worth noting that, at the time, it was extremely rare for an African American woman filmmaker to see her feature film financed, picked up and distributed in theaters by a mini-major like Miramax (albeit in a limited release). So Harris was in very rare air, coming after Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” 2 years earlier, and she arguably doesn’t get the kind of recognition she deserves.
And while we can certainly say that there have been advancements since them, working black women filmmakers with films in theaters, are still very rare, as are coming of age stories about black girls, regardless of socio-economic class.
“Just Another Girl On The I.R.T.” is available on various home video platforms, including DVD (although it’s not streaming on Netflix at this time).
Below you’ll find a 2013 panel discussion with director Leslie Harris, star of the film Ariyan Johnson, moderated by Uptown Magazine’s Angela Bronner Helm; the film was celebrating its 20th anniversary that year, and a screening of it was held at the 92Y Tribeca in NYC, which was followed by the below conversation, in which they of course discuss the film, and more.
The discussion is split up into 2 parts for a total of about 35 minutes: