The Incredible Jessica James debuted to an audience eagerly awaiting its next piece of seemingly antiracist media where an bothered body occupies central placement. To most The Incredible Jessica James is a coming of age narrative where a black female twenty-something finds her way past a breakup an through her struggles as a striving artist. What is most incredible about this film is that it resumes the contemporary colorblind initiative. This contemporary initiative is not to tackle the totality of the black experience, but to move past blackness by ignoring it completely. Moreover, what is most incredible about Jessica James is despite her skin color and natural hair—there is nothing black about her. The word "black" is gracefully omitted from the film—a pattern consistent with contemporary portrayals of black people. Instead, viewers hear James reference her statuesque height quite a few times throughout the film–suggesting that it is her height not color, is her most defining attribute.
In early portrayals of black femininity, the black female body operated in extremes—she was either unmistakably black, a "mammy-like figure" like Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, or a racially ambiguous "tragic mulatto or jezebel" as seem in Dorothy Dandridge's 1954 performance in Carmen. The racially ambiguous woman stirred two pots in her ability to strategically provide blacks a fictive representation, without challenging European aesthetics. bell hooks notes this point in Black Looks:
When black women actresses like Lena Horne appeared in mainstream cinema most white viewers were not aware that they were looking at black females unless the film was specifically coded as being about blacks (119).
Contemporary black leading ladies perform a similar role, except not through aesthetics. Instead, the black female body functions to visibly suggest a diversity her portrayal functions to downplay.
This is important for black women to acknowledge prior to celebrating representation seemingly granted in portrayals like The Incredible Jessica James, portrayals strategically implemented to work against the black woman. By this I mean that while actress Jessica Williams is beautiful, witty, and talented, as Jessica James, Williams encourages black women to exist beyond blackness—an act of mentacide that will eventually foment black female oblivion.
Black female oblivion is the ultimate result of anti-blackness, a shared theme of past and present black female representation. The Incredible Jessica James enforces anti blackness with a common pairing to the contemporary black female body—a white man.
The white man rides in like a white night following James’ breakup from Damon, her black ex-boyfriend. The film introduces viewers to protagonist Jessica James after a recent breakup from a man of whom she was with for two years— a decision that haunts her in a series of comical dreams throughout the film. Her ex-boyfriend, a young and handsome black man, appears kind and supportive in the flashbacks of the couple. His portrayal prompts viewers to question why the two parted ways— a query that James seems to serially ask herself throughout the film but answer in the giant steps towards whiteness she takes afterwards.
Namely, these failed black romances birth two interracial romances as viewers see Damon out on a date with a non-black woman as James also meets up with a non-black date. I am intentionally focusing on the color of characters to illustrate that blackness, while never acknowledged, also does not visibly frequent the film. James, a black woman from Ohio, flees her hometown for a better life. When James does fly back for her sister's baby shower it is blatantly obvious that she does not fit in with the small town environment that nurtured her early years. Her transition from small town to big city also symbolizes a step away from blackness as James' “better” life in Bushwick is overwhelmingly white. This running away from home, much like her breakup, illustrates black conflict as preceding or offsetting the black body’s journey to whiteness.
This journey to whiteness is heavily veiled in what the film tries to pass of as chemistry. James' artistic chemistry with theatre leads her to the big city, and her chemistry with the concept "woman" leads her into the platonic embrace of a white female friends. The film vehemently tries to present James' relationship with Boone as oozing with rebound chemistry. James and Boone though have zero chemistry. They have a good conversation, mainly because James’ honesty will not allow for much else. They become sexually involved shortly after meeting, and their sex scene is cringeworthy and seems to exist solely to provide visible proof of their consummation. Their sexual encounter is hard to watch, hard to hear, and disappointing to the black female gaze who would probably have taken better to a love scene between two gorgeous black people rather than a middle-aged white man and a young black woman. Jessica is the bridge Boone uses to get over his personal trauma—a recent divorce from a thin, blonde woman. By the end of the film, Jessica replaces Boone’s ex-wife as the object of his affection, transforming from an escapist route to a national treasure—-objectified yet symbolic.
The romance between the two, also serves as a platform for Boone to become the film’s white savior figure. After James receives an overseas offer to teach theatre and lead a production of one of her plays, Boone funds the trip through his frequent flyer miles. This ruins what should have been the most touching moment of the play–the black girl magic between James and her black female student.
The scenes with James and her students are touching, and function to add dimension to Jessica James the character. Nurturing the young versions of ourselves as they work to find themselves in a world designed for their destruction is something all black women should prioritize. James and her black female student connect in talent and a displaced hurt—their writing a means to iron out the wrinkles in their lives. However, with blackness lying in the film’s background, this connection between two young black females is only on the surface. The portrayal, in omitting blackness, depicts a teacher taking a “troubled” student under their wing—oversimplifying the shared experience between black women to a shared experience between women. Thus, Boone, the white savior, illustrates the white man as a prize who literally and figuratively funds those culminating their journey to an illusive whiteness.
Furthermore, the “incredible” in The Incredible Jessica James, unintentionally functions similarly to the “great” in the The Great Gatsby—providing a satirical feel to a seemingly complimentary term. What is in fact incredible about the film is its mastered technique diminished by underdeveloped critical thought. In an unpublished essay, esteemed scholar W.E.B. Dubois said the following:
Technique without character is chaos and war. Character without technique is labor and want. But when you have human being who know the world and can grasp it; who have their feelings guised by ideals, then using technique as their hands they can get rid of the four great evils of human life. The four evils are ignorance, poverty, diseases and crime. (Dubios 252).
The Incredible Jessica James succeeds in method displayed in its writing and comedic genius, but lacks character in its anti-blackness. The characters lack the racial depth that paint them in the image of black viewers of a shared experience. Therefore, the film promotes ignorance, moral poverty, and disease in performing the greatest crime cast onto the black diaspora—racism.
Black female portrayal must begin, contain, and evolve pedagogy. We must learn the entirety of our oppression to avoid furthering our systemized state by creating images that tackle the acumen of African identity.
In closing, The Incredible Jessica James is not a bad movie—it’s just not a black movie. It is a sense of escapism for those who fantasize about a apparent utopia where where color is not discussed. This utopia eventually proves a dystopia as it operates with the same racial subtext of slavery and the Jim Crow South. The film proves that racial neutrality is inherently anti-blackness, something the contemporary world presents as evolution.
To evolve is to move past the seduction of colorlessness in a word established on color differences. To evolve is to uncaricature blackness and stand in a truth defined by a collective understanding. To evolve is to see blackness as a glory to be shouted from the mountaintops, not be subjugated to an elephant in the room, series or film.
As the late but great author James Baldwin once said “Nothing can be changed unless it is faced.” The Incredible Jessica James, is another example of art functioning to deflect black focus away from blackness. Any step a black person takes away from blackness is a step towards anti-blackness into the flaming pit of white supremacy.
Let us face the entirety of our blackness without fear, or shame, and create art that is not vouyeristic for whites but a means for blacks to hold a looking glass to the complexities of our existence.
Black Power ❤