The ever-dependable character actor brings vitality to the role of a woman in search of more in a film that cant quite match her
Any diversion from the usual, even if it involves a 20-hour Greyhound ride, holds promise for Juanita, the titular character of a new Netflix drama tasked with the laudable goal of thrusting an often sidelined character into the spotlight. The film focuses on a nurse, played by the dependable character actor Alfre Woodard fresh from an acclaimed performance in Clemency, the first film by a woman of color, Chinonye Chukwu, to win the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and a recurring role in Luke Cage who decides to flee the constraints that make up her existence for Butte, Montana.
Juanita tells us what her life looks like at the beginning of the film when she directly speaks to the camera, a stylistic gimmick the film utilizes for the first quarter and eventually abandons. She works a minimum-wage job, takes care of her three children and granddaughter, and can never really get a break; her son Randy is in prison, her daughter, Bertie, uses her to babysit, and her other son, Rashawn, is involved in petty crime. To take her mind off her numerous troubles, she fantasizes about Blair Underwood, and these dreams provide a warm respite from a difficult existence.
The film strikes a balance between grim observation and quirky humor, and it doesnt always succeed. Its an overstuffed movie flirting with genre, not fully deciding whether it should be some sort of PSA or an indie comedy or a television pilot. So much seems to happen, yet dramatic events fail to provide the film with a propulsive force. And though it does attempt to portray the lived experience of a working-class black woman in a positive light, it uses particular stereotypes to do so. For example, the role of magical spiritual guide goes to a lesbian trucker who quite literally drives Juanita from Butte to Paper Moon, Montana. When the two first meet at a diner, they have a stilted conversation, touching on issues of mass incarceration and discrimination. Though this moment was ostensibly written with the best intentions, it still seems contrived.
A similar artificiality rears its head again when Juanita arrives at Paper Moon, where she finds a job with a chef, played by Adam Beach, who, after a disagreement about the French menu, hires her to cook at his cafe. They begin a romance, and their burgeoning relationship brings peace to him, a Native American veteran of Desert Storm tortured by losing a friend in the war, and self-realization to Juanita. As the film progresses, we find that their shared traumas not only connect them, but allow them to transcend their age differences as well. Woodard is 20 years Beachs senior, and the film deserves props for not making this relationship an object of ridicule.
At its best, its reminiscent of films like Claudine, a 1974 drama that featured a relationship between a single mother, played by Diahann Carroll, and a sanitation worker, played by James Earl Jones. Both films feature complex romances seen through the eyes of black women, and touch on how economics and race affect these pairings. Though not as subtle, Juanita manages to provide a type of representation that is rarely seen on the small or big screen, and this success mainly hinges on Woodards performance she manages to broadcast vitality and sadness in equal measure, and never lets the viewer forget that there is more to this character than her suffering.
Netflix has provided much-needed opportunities for black women in central roles, from Dear White People to Nappily Ever After to Seven Seconds to Roxanne, Roxanne and its hard to see where else a film like this could land. Its too meandering and plotless to appeal to mainstream multiplex viewers, but its too restrained and cliched to appeal to art-house regulars. Its plagued by the limitations of a TV movie with a distinguishable style nowhere to be seen, thanks to the veteran TV director Clark Johnson, and by the end, one does feel somewhat tranquilized by the experience. Its a step in the right direction for Netflix in one way, giving an older black woman her own narrative but one hopes that with progress, more adequate resources and more gifted storytellers will help bring these stories to light in the future.
Juanita is now available on Netflix