When I first saw the trailer for Juanita back in February, I was too excited. Alfre Woodard is my girl. And I am all for Black women living their best life and breaking out of the societal norms that are often unfairly bestowed upon us.
Taking a sabbatical from life’s day to day challenges is always portrayed as something only white women get to do. Black women can’t afford to do a Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. We just carry everyone’s burdens while ignoring our own because we’re so darn magical, too strong and too resilient that we can’t possibly think of abandoning our many obligations.
We don’t get to suddenly bus it out of the city and away from our demanding families and that’s what makes, Juanita (Alfre Woodard) a bit of a rebel. The audacity that a Black woman leaves her spoiled children, her unfulfilling job to just live life, find love, or just have really great sex.
The film was so funny and refreshing and I was here for it.
Until I found out that a white woman wrote the book that inspired the Netflix film. Juanita is based on the novel Dancing on the Edge of the Roof by Sheila Williams. Sheila Williams is a white woman who lives in Ohio where the title character Juanita lives. Roderick M. Spencer, who is married to Woodard and who wrote the screenplay for Juanita, read the book first and was inspired to create the movie. It’s fair to say that Woodard had a say in the screenplay.
But, the fact that the book and the screenplay was written by white people changes the whole narrative. The story then reeks of a white woman sabbatical and less of a story of a Black woman who finds her happy and gets her groove back.
Dialogue such as, “Teisha, your mama’s a hoe” feels different when you know a white man wrote it. Or “I’m a fuckin’ ghetto cliche.” Is that in the book? Did Williams come up with that or Spencer?
Questions arise, exactly who is Juanita based off of? Did Williams have a Black coworker who had a son in jail, a daughter who is a teenage mother and a drug dealer son? Did she secretly think her coworker was a ghetto cliche? And did she laugh when her Black coworker mispronounced Butte, Montana?
The jokes hit differently once you know that the laughs may have been laced in stereotypes and racial microaggressions. Once I learned of the origin of the movie, the film that I thought smartly explored the complexities of love and unbridled joy became less liberating.
Hollywood is an industry where white people can win an Oscar with a falsified story like, Green Book. Green Book is a movie of falsehoods, according to Maurice Shirley, Dr. Shirley’s only living brother, who sent a strongly worded missive to publications nationwide, dismissing Green Book. It’s one thing to get historical facts wrong, or to massage them for the sake of dramatic coherence. It’s another thing to take something so essential as racial identity—as the inner life of a person of color—and revise it
So what do two white writers know about Black women’s liberation? Junita then becomes a very white understanding of race and Black women.
Where is Terry McMillan when you need her?