Why The Incredible Jessica James Is An Important Film For Black Women Everywhere

Netflix's new rom-com, starring Jessica Williams, features the rarest of unicorns – a black leading lady.

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Allow me to set the scene: our protagonist is Jessica James, a 25-year-old aspiring playwright who uses rejection letters from theatre companies to wallpaper her apartment in 'deep, deep, DEEP' Bushwick, New York, whilst attempting to get over a recent break-up by going on a series of ill-fated Tinder dates.

So far, so familiar. You'd also be forgiven for thinking the premise of Netflix's latest film, The Incredible Jessica James, sounds alarmingly similar to pretty much every other 'millennial in the city' scenario that graces our screens nowadays. But for one thing, Jessica James – the film's titular character – is black. Played by former Daily Show funnywoman and co-host of the 2 Dope Queens podcast Jessica Williams, she brings bundles of charisma and style.

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And so we meet that rarest of unicorns in the rom-com canon – a black leading lady.

To say that Hollywood isn't famed for presenting an abundance of options for black actresses would be something of an understatement, especially where romantic roles are concerned. Rom-coms are a dime a dozen, but how many big-budget releases can you name where the female lead is black? When black women are promoted from the level of 'sassy sidekick' into leading roles.

All too often they're presented in a context that hangs almost entirely on their victimhood, be they slaves, 'the help', or otherwise. A conscious effort to avoid those clichés is likely why Girls Trip's quartet of black leading ladies have been such a runaway success – here at last is a movie that centres around black women, without resorting to the same formulaic narratives of hardship and sorrow that is too often their lot.

Jessica James offers similar respite by presenting a black actress in a context where the narrative doesn't hinge solely on her race. The film instead follows her as she deals with the minutiae of every day life all women encounter, regardless of skin colour.

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The casting of Williams in particular feels especially apt, considering how vocal the comedienne has been about the struggles black women face within (and without) Hollywood. This was most notably as part of a widely reported – and by all accounts, excruciating – encounter with actress Salma Hayek at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Williams' attempts to educate Hayek on intersectional feminism and the added burdens black women face fell on deaf, or unwilling, ears. Given Hayek's failure to recognise that even amongst the catch-all term 'women of colour' there exists a hierarchy of privilege based on proximity to whiteness, Netflix's decision to cast a dark-skinned black woman in the role of Jessica feels particularly important.

Despite this, Jessica James isn't perfect. The film falls flat in its failure to make the most of Williams' comedic chops. It often just isn't that funny.

Somewhat remarkably, one of the most amusing moments is delivered during a ten second walk-on by a Good Samaritan who interrupts Jessica's public tirade at her ex-boyfriend to ask, 'Is this woman bothering you?' before offering to call the police. It's a brilliant subversion of a familiar scenario that offers viewers a glimpse of the oddball humour Jessica James is clearly aiming for, but doesn't quite nail. When compared to Issa Rae's Insecure, also a graduate of the 'awkward black girl' school of comedy, the humour in Jessica James struggles to find its footing.

Still, there are convincing moments of tenderness between Jessica and new beau Boone (a recent divorcee played capably by Chris O'Dowd), and in her interactions with the motley crew of preteen thesps she's tasked with coaching as part of her job working at a non-profit children's theatre program.

The film will likely draw comparisons with the likes of Lena Dunham's Girls or indie hit Frances Ha – that of a young woman seeking love and creative fulfilment against the backdrop of bright city lights –and it certainly fits neatly into (but unfortunately doesn't break) that increasingly familiar mould.

And here's the rub: far from being incredible, in Jessica James we meet a perfectly ordinary twenty-something woman grappling with love, life, and professional fulfilment. And in a world where black women rarely get to do that on screen, that in itself, is kind of incredible.

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