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Harris Rides 'I.R.T.' to Film Success

FAST TRACK: Up and comers in arts and entertainment

April 20, 1993|JOHN ANDERSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — When Leslie Harris set out to write the script to her new film, "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.," she knew she needed a lot of time. But she also had to eat. So she fashioned herself some specialized work.

"I started temping," she said, "but I told them all I could do was answer phones. I said I couldn't type--even though I could.

"I got a few messages mixed up," she admits, flashing a bright, wide smile. "But I needed the time!"

Harris needed five years, in fact, to get her story about a sassy 17-year-old Brooklyn girl named Chantel from the receptionist's desk to the screen. And along the way, the 32-year-old Cleveland-born first-time director--who after work would eat her dinner on the subway and pull a 6 p.m-to-midnight shift at a film lab so she'd have access to equipment--has overcome more than a few obstacles. Like being black, being female and having the audacity to make a similar person the subject of a feature film.

"It's been a challenge," Harris said. "In terms of African-American women directors doing feature films, the door's been closed to us. There's Julie Dash, to name one, but 'Daughters of the Dust' was kind of experimental, and didn't garner any wide distribution. I think there would be a lot more films by women if there were more women green-lighting movie projects."

Harris, a friendly and articulate woman who lives in "Spike Lee's neighborhood"--Fort Greene, Brooklyn--has dubbed her movie "the film Hollywood dared not do" and she doesn't get much argument: Chantel, played with great energy and style by newcomer Ariyan Johnson, is antagonistic, disrespectful of her elders--several of whom deserve it--and is generally the kind of teen-ager a lot of adults love to loathe.

But she's as smart as she is smart-mouthed--too smart, several critics have charged, to fall into a classic trap: When she gets pregnant, she denies it to herself until it's too late to do anything, and has some subsequently harrowing, and startling, experiences.

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Whether she learns anything from those experiences--and whether they say the right thing to Chantel's real-life contemporaries--is a question a number of reviewers have raised. But Harris finds the debate misbegotten.

"First of all," Harris said, "I think that sometimes, when there's a film about a woman, or especially a film by a woman, the first thing people want to say is, 'It's a message film.' I'm not even sure what that is. But I guess women are supposed to always be nurturing, and solving the world's problems."

People forget, she says, that a director is supposed to be telling a story. "Chantel is a character; she's not supposed to give answers. I'm depicting this young woman's life. So it's interesting that some critics are saying the film is giving mixed messages, or the wrong message or whatever, because I wonder how many films are really looked at that way, rather than as entertainment."

Take "GoodFellas," she said, which is by one of her favorite directors, Martin Scorsese.

"I don't think it's looked at as an in-depth study of the Mafia or anything," Harris said. "And even some of the inner-city films with guys, like 'New Jack City'--I think they're viewed more as entertainment. At the same time, look at 'The Prince of Tides.' Barbra Streisand got a lot of that same reaction, because she was dealing with social issues, the idea of recovering from child abuse. The questions immediately become, 'What kind of message is that? How is it relevant? What are you trying to say in the context of social issues?' They forget it's a film."

Harris is outspoken on the issues of race and sex, but her film shows a generous nature: Tyrone (Kevin Thigpen) is the young man who gets Chantel in her predicament and who exhibits some shallow behavior and attitude. But he's not just another male on the IRT (which, for the uninitiated, stands for the Interborough Rapid Transit system). In fact, as a character, he's redeemed.

"I really don't try to trash my characters," Harris said, laughing.

". . . My brothers are pretty nice people. Some of my old boyfriends are OK. I really did try my best to try to make balanced characters. And that includes not making Chantel a saint, or a victim. She makes mistakes. She's materialistic and afraid. And compassionate. And confused."

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And whether she shares much with her creator depends on how you look at it. Unlike Chantel, Harris grew up middle-class in Cleveland, not in the gritty Brooklyn projects.

She got a degree from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where she made animated and short live-action films. Then she moved to New York and worked in advertising before abandoning regular work for the cinematic life. Her manner, unlike Chantel's, is warm and open.

But in Harris' view, "we're different, but we're similar. . . ."

"She definitely has a point of view in the film," Harris said, laughing again. "I'm not saying she's right or wrong, because in a lot of instances I wouldn't do what Chantel is doing. She's not an easy character. But I think males have a lot more liberty on screen. They can pretty much do what they want. And women need to have that luxury."

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