Originally posted at People’s World
The new Netflix original movie Juanita deals with a woman who is sick and tired of being sick and tired, and she’s going on a vacation to not have to take it anymore. The main character, Juanita, is an older African-American working class woman who has found herself drowning in the societal ills that many Americans deal with constantly: low-paying jobs, poverty, oppression, and the overall stress of dealing with a system that seeks to work many into an early grave. Juanita mixes drama and laughter to tell a story of a Black woman who prioritizes self-care in order to not be eaten alive by the rat race of life. It does so with a subtle, lighthearted charm, while touching upon serious issues that many working women face.
Produced by Mandalay Pictures and distributed by the content streaming giant Netflix, Juanita is directed by Clark Johnson (The Wire, The Walking Dead), with a screenplay written by Roderick M. Spencer. Emmy Award-winning actress, producer, and political activist Alfre Woodard stars as the main character, with Adam Beach, Blair Underwood, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and Ashlie Atkinson in supporting roles. The movie is based on the novel Dancing on the Edge of the Roof, by Sheila Williams. The film’s plot deals with a Columbus, Ohio woman who buys a one-way bus ticket to Butte, Montana, seeking adventure and something new. She’s out to escape the poverty and stress that comes with being a mother with three adult children while trying to make a living supporting them. While traveling, she meets an array of characters that influence her journey.
The film has many things going for it that make it a fresh take on the road trip plotline that we’ve seen done before. By focusing on a woman of color that is middle-aged and African-American in an industry—and a world—obsessed with youth, the film allows itself to explore topics for a character that is often relegated to a supporting role and not allowed layers and nuance. Woodard shines brightly as Juanita, filled with life, energy, and frustration. The character has wants and desires that the viewers are allowed to see. She’s given space to explore her sexuality, vulnerability, and her shortcomings. This subverts the often overused trope of the strong, stoic, and all-knowing older Black woman that is frequently showcased in mainstream movies as the advisor to the often younger main character.
Woodward’s character often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience, letting the viewers in on the inner workings of her brain. This works well in drawing us into her story, as she explains that being a nurse and single mother aren’t the only things she wants to be defined by. We follow her as she deals with a son in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and two other children struggling to find work and purpose as they continue living in her home. Woodward delivers Juanita’s speeches to the audience with a natural charm that makes her relatable, thus ensuring that the viewer wants her to succeed on her journey of second chances and adventure.
As mentioned, Woodward’s Juanita is surrounded by an array of characters that also go against the grain of what we’re used to seeing on screen. For example, Adam Beach, who plays Jess, is Juanita’s main love interest in the film. Jess is a Native American man and army veteran who works a cook in a French restaurant in Montana. His character is not presented as a solution to all of Juanita’s problems, but rather as a layered character with his own demons to sort out and who wishes to find some semblance of happiness with Juanita. It’s a love story with two people of color leads that doesn’t just focus on race, but rather on who they are as people. Jess also deals with alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder, a subject that also gets some examination.
There are frank discussions had on screen dealing with heavy issues such as race, systemic oppression, addiction, and death. This is balanced by the oftentimes laugh-out-loud comedy interwoven throughout the movie. Blair Underwood does a hilarious job playing a fictional version of himself, as Juanita’s imaginary sexual friend, who often goes off script when it comes to her desires. LaTanya Richardson Jackson does well as Juanita’s friend and confidant, Kay-Rita, who is also an older Black woman. Ashlie Atkinson (BlackKklansman) plays the truck-driving lesbian who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Juanita, helping her get to some of her destinations. It’s a fun mix of characters and actors that play well with each other, ultimately helping to carry the movie along.
For some viewers, the plotting may feel scattered, as the movie attempts to address and take on many topics in its one hour and thirty minute run time. This isn’t a glaring drawback, as it could be seen as an effort to speak to the multitude of issues Black working women take on in their daily lives. If the plot is scattered, it’s only because Juanita herself has become scattered and stretched thin trying to find some form of inner peace. The emotional payoffs in the film more than deliver, as Black woman joy is allowed full display.
Overall, Juanita pushes a narrative of taking care of yourself under a system that can be overbearing for many, and specifically for Black working-class women. Currently, nearly 41 million Americans live below the federal poverty line. Black women in the U.S., like Juanita, are paid 38 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women. The poverty rate for Black women is 28.6 percent, and households headed by women, particularly Black and Latina women, still deal with high rates of poverty.
Although Black women are often at the forefront of causes fighting for justice and equality, and we’ve seen films that focus on the fight, it’s a nice change to see a film that focuses on the care needed to carry on with the struggle. It’s a feel-good movie with fresh humor and nuance.
Juanita is currently streaming on Netflix. The trailer can be seen here.