Stella Meghie completed the script for Jean of the Joneses in 2010. The movie just premiered, three months into the year 2016. It took Meghie time to get the film she wanted to make get produced because, as she points out (as Don Cheadle also did), it’s tough to find funding for all independent films. As she says “it was particularly harder when people are very unsure if there will be an audience for it.”
Jean of the Joneses revolves around a West Indian family of women whose existence is shaken when their estranged patriarch dies on their doorstep. The incident has reverberations for all the women in the family, but particularly Jean (Taylour Paige), a lost writer who catches the eye of the paramedic who answers that 911 call. All the women deal with the death in their own ways, looking at and reconsidering their day-to-day existences. It’s a film about a group of women of color, where men rarely grace the screen. It doesn’t contain explosions, superheroes or particularly dramatic plot twists. It’s a perfectly worn, gorgeously realized slice of life anchored by a star-making performance by Paige (who currently stars in VH1’s Hit the Floor), who brings Jean immediately to life—equal parts confusion and sarcasm, grace and mess. She’s a writer who is lost and broke, someone whose literary promise burned too bright too quickly and she has to figure out what her next step is.
While I certainly don’t know the ins and outs of the funding decisions of Hollywood, I’m afraid all the reasons that Jean feels so important and relevant to me are the reasons that it had problems getting funded—a film starring a group of West Indian women, everyday life situations, barely a handful of men onscreen, on top of it being the first feature from a woman writer/director. But thankfully Jean does exist—even with funding struggles and Meghie’s unwarranted self-doubt.
With a cast of primarily women, Meghie says that making Jean was an incredible but rare experience. “It was such a treat to cast such a wide range of women. From the six-year-old who played Lisa to Michelle Hurst. It’s like, 'When do you get to do this?' I’m like, 'Never.'”
The family’s West Indian identity is incredibly important to the film, showing the ways that generations interact with that identity in varying ways, from Jean’s grandmother making the family traditional dishes to when Jean jokingly describes herself as “a multicultural wunderkind according to the New Yorker.” Paige found the experience as a way to further connect with her own heritage. “Stella is so close to her West Indian family. I happen to be half West Indian, but I don’t know that side of my family,” she says. “It was interesting tapping into, not only the way they relate to each other because there are so many different people within the West Indies, but just learning how they relate to each other.”
Obviously, when it comes to this film that explores West Indian identity, primarily through a group of women and in a contemporary setting, it’s impossible to not acknowledge the film’s progressiveness. In a climate where stories about brown people are relegated to larger-than-life biopics or stories about slavery, watching Jean feels like an incredibly fresh breath of air. You see people (and especially women) just living their lives, as Paige succinctly describes: “These aren’t “black situations.” It’s just everyone’s situation.” Meghie agrees, admitting that they got lucky in being able to tell a story that isn’t often financed, while stressing the importance of telling contemporary stories. “You just hope that they keep making them like that and that people can see this and know that there are more stories. It’s not the problem that there are stories about migrant workers or slavery, it’s the problem when there’s not contemporary stories to go with that.”
Meghie’s fingerprints are all over Jean, she tells me, from details like the turbans Jean wears (inspired by novelist Zadie Smith, an oft-mentioned influence) to notes that paint the picture of the real New York City. Even though Meghie mentioned that she felt as though she didn’t know what she was doing directing Jean, she was still empowered to follow her vision fully. That was a tip she picked up from Nancy Meyers.
If you are getting directing advice from anyone, shouldn’t it be Nancy Meyers?! After Paige instructed both of us to immediately follow her on Instagram, Meghie shared the words of wisdom that Meyers imparted on her. “She really gave me permission to run your set however you feel like. She was talking about how, when she started out, she wasn’t allowed onset without a man. She was such a quiet badass. I really took that into [account] when I directed. It’s like, do what you want. Be a badass and just ask for what you want.”
The result is this film, which should inform funders who worry that diverse, contemporary stories “don’t have an audience”—because they more than likely they do. Earlier in our conversation, I told Meghie that Jean reminded me of a “less twee Wes Anderson family drama that actually looks like the world,” a reason that people should see the film as it begins to hit the festival circuit (it felt criminally under talked about at SXSW) and—*prayer hands emoji*—gets distribution. Films like Jean are incredibly important in a landscape where we write thinkpieces about Hollywood being depressingly white and lamenting how or why or what we can do to impact change. Having more films that tell the contemporary stories about POC are exactly that: ones that span genres, discover new and needed talent, and paint a fairer, better representation of the diverse world we live in.
To read more coverage of SXSW 2016, click here.