TIFF 2016 Review: Jean of the Joneses21 September 2016 / by Kelly Lewars (author)
Tasteful, sharp and unapologetic, Stella Meghie’s “acerbic coming-of-age tale”, Jean of the Joneses, is long overdue in the canon of black film.
It was just last month in the episode “Is Your Shiny Suit Alright?”, podcast Another Round talked about what qualified a movie to make the cut as a truly black film. The episode’s host, Tracy Clayton, and guests, Bim Adewummi and Aisha Harris, discuss and recognize the lack of any films, black or otherwise, that focus on growing up as a black woman in modern North America without the emphasis of struggle, tragedy or trauma. Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, made in 1994, was the last one they could remember. Toronto-born Meghie succeeds in writing and directing this memorable American-Canadian debut with a majority black female cast.
Protagonist Jean Jones (Taylour Paige), is a quirky, aimless twenty-something who watches her career, love, and Brooklyn family unit slowly falling apart. As these facets of her life take a dive, they take a backseat to Jean’s Odyssean journey of every female family member and their homes. All while defiantly pursuing the truth of her family’s secretes, initiated by her estranged grandfather showing up at the family home and having a heart attack on the doorstep.
Meghie’s writing and directing doesn’t bombard the viewer with reminders that these women are black; however, black identity, and the performance of that identity, influences each member of the Jones family in different ways, whether it be nuisance, burden, or humour. Sometimes as all three, like when Daphne “Grandma” Jones (Michelle Hurst) complains that arriving late for church means the Joneses have to sit with the “tourists” in the balcony. “They come to see us sing and dance, just like in Harlem” she says. The black experience is woven into the story in bits and pieces.
Hurst and Erica Ash’s performances as Daphne and Anne Jones were especially skilled at blending in a Jamaican brand of humor, with melodrama and hard brashness, reminiscent of Oliver Samuels. As a director, Meghie must be given credit for being able to balance the talent of fresh faces, like Taylour Paige and Mamoudou Athie, with adept talents of Gloria Reuben and Hurst in a seamless way. This balancing act is never more apparent as when Jean and Ray, Athie, interact. Their connection is organic, playful, and sensual. In these scenes, Paige seems to be able to turn up or down the volume on Jean’s presence quite easily and Athie is ready to take whatever she dishes out or hold his own.
With a Woody Allen sensibility and bursts of a Jamicanesque humor, Meghie crafts a bittersweet coming-of-age narrative that's also is an unyielding contributor to new, contemporary stories of black experience. Underlined by a bright, upbeat jazz score from Hungarian-Canadian musician Robi Botos, check out Meghie’s film as soon as you can.