In 1993, director Leslie Harris had an enormous breakthrough. Her debut feature Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., a coming of age story about a Black teenager named Chantel (Ariyan A. Johnson) who becomes unexpectedly pregnant, premiered at Sundance to overwhelming critical acclaim. The film won the festival’s special jury prize and was picked up by Miramax for distribution, making history as the first film directed by a Black woman to receive a wide-release deal. For Harris, it appeared her burgeoning career was off to an exciting start.
However, despite multiple fundraising efforts and a veritable trove of screenplays she’s written over the years, the filmmaker hasn’t received adequate backing to helm subsequent projects; to date, Just Another Girl remains her only film. Harris is all too conscious of how the film industry has failed her—and how discrimination she’s faced as a Black woman has hindered her creative career. She notes the similarities between her situation and Julie Dash’s, whose 1991 film Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film by a Black woman to be distributed theatrically in the U.S. Despite Dash’s initial success, she too hasn’t had the opportunity to make another feature-length film. According to Harris, the industry is simply inhospitable to—and perhaps even afraid of—Black women’s uncompromised visions. Even with Just Another Girl, Harris revealed during a post-screening Q&A that she originally faced pressure from backers to write one of her characters as a drug dealer. Of course, she plainly refused.
Harris’s vision has continued to pay off, even if the support she’s received hasn’t necessarily translated to material resources to make another film. The film recently screened at Metrograph as part of a series on abortion in American film, unintentionally timed to a leaked Supreme Court draft which would overturn Roe v. Wade. Harris was present for what became a 40-minute long talk-back. Fans were eager to address the director, their questions often exuding long-held praise and admiration for her work—the desire for another film from Harris was palpable among the crowd. As it turns out, Harris has been working on it. Considering the enduring timeliness of Just Another Girl, it certainly does seem like the perfect moment for a Harris comeback.
Even during our own post-screening interview, a twentysomething fan came up to Harris and spoke about how the film reflected her own upbringing in a way that felt eternally close to her heart. She even asked to snap a Polaroid of Harris sitting at the bar, continuing to gush about how much she loves the film. With maintained eye contact and genuine appreciation for her compliments, Harris let the fan know that we were in the middle of an interview. “Oh, I thought you two were just friends,” the woman chuckled. We both smiled in response. Truthfully, my 30-minute conversation with Harris did feel like one of the friendliest I’ve had in a while.
I spoke with Harris over glasses of seltzer with lime following Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. on 35mm, the closing night screening of Metrograph’s series “It Happens to Us: Abortion in American Film.”
Filmmaker: This film really is such a cinematic touchstone when it comes to depicting pregnancy and birth on screen. What felt important to you about depicting teen pregnancy specifically? While it’s certainly not an uncommon experience, the story that you choose to tell is quite unconventional.
Harris: When I was in high school, a friend of mine became pregnant. And we were actually, like, the kind of smart kids at school. It really profoundly affected me when I found out she was pregnant—just how it changed her life, the whole responsibility of it. I remember us just being young girls in her bedroom when we found out she was pregnant. At that point, we had so many dreams and aspirations, and I asked myself: Was she really going to continue to do all those things? We kind of lost touch over time, but that was the impetus for everything. I didn’t even know at that time that I was going to be a filmmaker or whatever.
Filmmaker: And this friend ended up going through with her pregnancy?
Filmmaker: You can certainly tell that there’s a kernel of truth to the film. Everything was portrayed so authentically. It’s rooted in a New York sensibility, and also distills harsh truths about the abysmal state of reproductive education even among straight-A students. How did you manage to imbue this authenticity into the film’s premise? I know you worked closely with Planned Parenthood and other local clinics.
Harris: When I first had the idea of doing this film, we actually made a black and white short. I went to Women Make Movies and they helped me out, but the one person who was really instrumental who I’d like to mention is Michelle Materre. She actually just passed away. She was so instrumental when it came to fostering the work of women, especially women of color. So, when I did the short, I needed to raise money. I actually went to another fiscal sponsor to borrow funds first, and they said that the deadline was already over. Then I went to Women Make Movies, and Michelle was there, just heaven sent. I was upset because I had done all of the proposals for the grants and stuff. Michelle helped Daughters of the Dust and was teaching at The New School. So I went to her, we did the black and white short and when it was done, my short was actually given to Planned Parenthood, just as something for starting a discussion. It was just a short we put together, but it had the same music and everything.
Filmmaker: And the same cast, as well?
Harris: Well, here’s the thing. I’m working on a documentary right now. I haven’t even touched upon what I worked on to get this movie done. Like I’ve been saying, in the ‘90s it was really male. I think people forget it was this boys’ club. I think what’s changed the landscape has been social movements, like Me Too and Black Lives Matter. It’s brought into focus that we need to do something when it comes to hiring people behind the camera.
Filmmaker: So does it feel like things are better for you to potentially make more films at this point?
Harris: Well, I do have a lot of screenplays. Nora Ephron was kind of like a mentor to me, and she used to always tell me “Just put away your screenplays.” And that’s what I’ve done. I wrote a film called I Love Cinema, about a film professor, but what I got in terms of funding as a Black woman…I just couldn’t make it happen. But I do have several screenplays.
Filmmaker: It just that the odds have been stacked against you in this industry.
Harris: I remember Jim McKay directed Kerry Washington in her first movie [Our Song], which was inspired by I.R.T. It’s just interesting how my film has inspired others, but I can’t make another one.
Filmmaker: People will praise your work, but when it comes to actually supporting you to continue making more work…
Harris: It’s a problem for all women of color who make feature films. Weirdly, television has been where more progress has been made.
Filmmaker: I totally agree with you.
Harris: Why do you also think that?
Filmmaker: I think that as a form of consumption, particularly in the streaming age, TV is just more willing to take chances. I mean, look at how many new shows are constantly being made for streaming platforms. Most of these shows won’t break through or be popular, but they obviously pay attention to what works, and I think what they’re finding is that serialized stories featuring diverse characters, helmed by diverse creatives, do at least pique viewer interest. And I just don’t think the broader film industry is willing to take a ton of those gambles anymore. I’m definitely not an expert on this, but that’s just my off the cuff take.
Harris: Absolutely. And I feel that TV is more of a writer’s medium. I mean, look at Shonda Rhimes, who comes from a background of theater. But I really come from a real director’s process—I just love movies, and I also come from a visual arts background. People will hear “auteur” and think you’re up in the clouds, but I feel that it’s important for me to make films that come from that point of view. But that’s still very hard to do! I really liked The Lost Daughter from Maggie Gyllenhaal. I had never really seen a movie depict motherhood in that way—
[A young woman interrupts us to tell Harris how much her film means to her. She asks to take her photograph, lingers for a few extra seconds to reiterate her praises, and leaves.]
Filmmaker: Do people often come up to you after these screenings with stories?
Harris: Yes. That’s the best part, actually. People still like the movie! You know, I’m a big fan of TCM [laughs].
Filmmaker: Yup, same here.
Harris: They had the TCM Film Festival, and George Stevens Jr. was there—you know, his father did A Place in the Sun—and he told this story about being 16 and driving in the car with his dad after he won an Oscar or something. He said, “Well dad, how do I know if this film is a good film?” And he replied, “You’ll know 25 years later.” It means a lot to me that people still like my movie now.
Filmmaker: I remember that the first time I saw this film at BAM in 2019, you were also in attendance for a Q&A. Your continued presence definitely helps the next generation connect with the work—and also gives insight into understanding the challenges of being a working creative, challenges that haven’t seemed to improve over time.
Harris: No, right, it’s not all good [laughs].
Filmmaker: But I also think that you constantly showing up absolutely keeps the history of this film alive. It never just faded into obscurity, with viewers wondering why this director never made a film again, because you’re out here talking about it and refusing to let people forget.
Harris: It’s like I said—I have several screenplays that people like and have expressed interest in. Maybe [I haven’t gotten funding because] my work always has something political about it. I don’t even intend it! I always try to make something fun, and it always turns into something bigger.
Filmmaker: But isn’t that just the nature of life? Even when we’re trying to have fun, the political nature of our identities shapes the circumstances of our lives.
Harris: I just think that I need to make another movie. The industry just needs to embrace more female auteurs, like with what we were talking about with Maggie Gyllenhaal. People want to make new movies that are not traditional.
Filmmaker: Right, and just willing to show up and disrupt the way that we think about something molded from standards that we don’t get to set for ourselves, particularly as women. Like, what does a good mother or daughter look like?
Filmmaker: It doesn’t have to be an easy or idealistic answer. It can be honest. I think that’s why your film resonates so heavily with people.
Harris: I mean, how many women are even heads of studio? Then you go into diversity…I guess what I’m saying is that people would appreciate Black, Latino, Asian-American stories in terms of projects that can get greenlit by studios. But I mean, why hasn’t Julie [Dash] made another movie? I mean, [Daughters of the Dust is] an iconic movie.
Filmmaker: Why is it that Black women’s breakthroughs in particular can’t be sustained by the industry?
Harris: I think it’s also because Julie has that auteur sensibility, and I have that auteur sensibility. It’s not really popular, and it’s not really been embraced. But we need to have that embrace.
Filmmaker: Yeah, the climate of film right now definitely seems geared toward solely hiring “diverse” directors to direct existing IP. It’s not conducive to championing original concepts.
Harris: We need to improve that. And going back to the streaming thing you were saying earlier, we need to improve that too. I mean, people want to sit at home and see a movie like Just Another Girl. But I do think viewers are missing out on a singular voice, especially when it comes to women and diversity.
Filmmaker: And singular doesn’t need to mean unrelatable. I was born a year after Chantel’s baby in the film was born, but her teenage struggles are ones that I saw reflected in my own experiences in the 2010s. I mean, so much of the film still feels relevant to this day!
Harris: For me, as a writer you want to make a character who’s a real person. With these issues, like Roe v. Wade, it comes down to how you bring that into a person whose story can move people. That’s when you have to get into character. And sometimes, these personal stories can move someone without being so political.
Filmmaker: I think that’s a testament to the impact that this film continues to have. It’s not preachy about teenagers giving in to “controllable” urges—through that non-judgmental lens, it’s powerful in the sense that people can go into it from their own histories and interpret it for themselves.
Harris: Right! And you can examine those issues, but do it with good humor. I mean, that’s basically what all my screenplays are like! I think that kind of scares people. Have I mentioned I’m working on a sequel [of Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.]?
Filmmaker: I’ve definitely heard about this. I’m assuming you already have a screenplay written?
Harris: Yeah. All I can say is that this film really should get made—there’s a lot in it. But it’s always the same thing. I write a screenplay, people love it, and I have to raise money. That’s filmmaking in general—I’m not trying to say I’m the only one who does this all the time. The hardest part about making movies is raising the money.
Filmmaker: I mean, especially for filmmakers who are working from this place of authenticity—if you had the money to just make your vision happen, would it necessarily be coming from a place of real-world authenticity?
Harris: It’s like an oxymoron, you know?
Filmmaker: Or a catch-22.