When Leslie Harris quit her job at an advertising agency, she was a struggling artist living in Fort Greene. This was around 1987, and the neighborhood was at a creative peak. “There was an energy and excitement,” she said in a recent conversation with Brownstoner. “I wanted to make a film that reflected that atmosphere and the vibrancy of Brooklyn.”
But at first, she didn’t know where to begin. Spending her days at a temp job, she took a night position at Film Video Arts, a now-defunct production services company in Manhattan that supported independent filmmakers. Riding the train every day, she began to find the story she wanted to tell.
“I would see these kids come on the train together with all this excitement, and they’re loud,” Harris said. “Then I would see some of the passengers move to another car. They were so intimidated by them, and I started to think about what it would be like following these kids back home. That’s what actually gave me the idea — I started writing the script on the train.”
“Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” was the result, which came together over a five-year period. On its 25th anniversary, the film will screen not far from where it was shot, at the Alamo Drafthouse on March 14.
The film focuses on Chantal, the kind of smart, brash high-school girl she would see on the train, who struggles with the tension between the limitations of her living situation and her desire for something beyond.
Harris had been frustrated by the lack of black female characters who were seen on screen. It was important that Chantal not be “just a good girl, the girlfriend, the mother, who had to sacrifice everything,” Harris said. “She is selfish, and wants things her way, but at the same time, in her own way, she helps her friends and they stick together in the neighborhood.”
Making the film, Harris kept it local. She credits a $150 grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council with launching the production, which gave them enough money to hold some auditions. After cobbling together money from a few other grants — the budget was a combined $130,000 — they were ready to shoot the film, which they completed in a quick 17 days. But during the editing of the film, which Harris was doing out of her own apartment, they ran out of money again. A generous donation from the author Terry McMillan, and later some money from the documentarian Michael Moore, to whom Harris had shown a rough cut of the film, pushed the production to its final stages.
The film was a minor hit when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993, winning a Special Jury Prize. But in the intervening years, it has achieved something of a cult status, especially among a young female audience. Harris told me that she still gets frequent messages on Twitter from young women who are finding the film and a model in Chantal.
Harris is currently working on a documentary that is partly about the making of “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” but also about her place as a black woman at that time, as a filmmaker and as a writer and producer. Looking back, she has been reflecting on the process of how she made “I.R.T.” and how things have changed.
“Nobody told me to do this or that,” Harris remembered. “I love collaboration, but I think there is something about your first film — it’s your film, with your voice. You shouldn’t have to worry about focus groups and all of that stuff. At that time, we saw a lot more authentic, independent voices.”
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