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‘Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 02, 1993

In "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.," Ariyan Johnson seizes the camera's attention like no other performer since John Travolta strutted into "Saturday Night Fever." Like Travolta's sidewalk prince, Johnson's Chantel is Brooklyn royalty. She's the smartest girl in her school, the best dancer, the best hooked-up and the freshest dresser.

She's got it all figured out. Her parents, she says, live from paycheck to paycheck, but it's not going to be like that for her. She's not going to wait until she's out of high school to begin college; she'll start down the road to becoming a doctor in her junior year. Before long, she'll be out of the projects and making "crazy bank" and her life will be way different.

Chantel is in a big hurry, and at first she looks invincibly self-confident. Standing in front of her mirror, she primps and boogaloos, takes a handful of dreadlocks, twists them into a bun on the top of her head and gives a nod of approval. In the laundry room, she's a tease to her boyfriend, Gerard (Jerard Washington). At the Upper West Side deli where she works, she sasses back to the rich white woman who'd trashed Chantel with her "you people" attitude. And at school, she editorializes so loudly about "black" issues that her teacher can't complete his lesson on the Holocaust. She does what she wants to when she wants to. Tough luck if you don't like it.

And, initially, we're so charmed by this flagrant display of moxie and determination that we fail to notice that it's mostly bluff. With this impressive feature debut -- which cost a minuscule $130,000 to shoot -- director Leslie Harris uses our prejudices to cause a sort of racial double take. The movies, even those by black directors, have done such a number on black youth that it takes a while for the audience to realize that Chantel isn't a hero. We're so used to seeing African American teens who don't have as much going for them as Chantel does, who aren't as smart, articulate and motivated, that we see her as a symbol of progress.

But Harris isn't content to leave it there. She points out that if Chantel is confident, she is also willful; that if she's goal-oriented, she's also grasping and materialistic and cruelly selfish. Harris demands that we look beyond Chantel's charm to see if she has anything besides the flash and style. Before the film is over, Chantel will have most of her plans derailed and her sense of self seriously challenged; she'll fall in love with Tyrone (Kevin Thigpen), get pregnant, take the $500 he's borrowed to pay for the abortion and use it to fund a shopping spree for her and her best girlfriend.

And Chantel will go even further, beyond the point where style and flash make any difference. Put yourself there, Harris seems to say -- pregnant, unmarried, broke, not yet out of high school -- and let's see how smart you are, girl.

"Just Another Girl" is really the story of Chantel's comeuppance. At first, Chantel thinks she knows far more than she actually does. She thinks she wins her confrontation with the school principal, who insists that she change her attitude and act more like a young lady. He says she's not ready for college yet; she thinks that if she's got the grades there's nothing he can do.

But the principal is right, Harris believes. Chantel has everything she needs to succeed -- everything except sense and experience.

It's partly because of Johnson that Chantel comes across at first as a winner. Johnson has so much personality and raw vitality that she's irresistible, perhaps even more so than Harris could have predicted. There's nothing of the actress in her, nothing but the character she plays. This kind of naturalism on camera is so rare, in fact, that it's frequently dismissed as first-timer's luck. But Johnson has amazing charisma, and the kind of innate expression that goes far beyond luck. She's a real find.

There's a direct contrast in perspective here between this story, which gives the abortion issue a complete, human context, and others -- by black men and white men -- that attempt to present a portrait of a black community completely without women, or where women function primarily as props.

What's interesting, though, is that Harris refuses to give Chantel -- or herself, for that matter -- a pat on the back merely for being a woman or for being black. True, there are times when she scores easy points off sitting ducks (like that white customer and her "you people"), and, yes, when Chantel is off camera, the screen seems to go dead. But these are minor faults. Her lover Tyrone would have made an easy target too, and given the low status granted to women in the films of black men, Harris could have used him to get some satisfying payback. But she resists the bait and gives him an equal chance to do the right thing.

Because she avoids glib resolutions, she also resists the opportunity to transform Chantel into either a martyr or a criminal. Hopelessness didn't feel any more right to her than hopefulness. In the end, that's about how Harris, the realist, leaves Chantel -- with possibilities and no better than a 50-50 chance.

"Just Another Girl on the I.R.T." is rated R for adult situations and language.

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