At a time when some of TV’s most successful creatives are developing a series that imagines modern Black Americans as chattel, Jessica Williams has starred in and executive-produced a film in which a black woman is free.
Williams plays the titular role in Netflix’s The Incredible Jessica James, and in it her confident protagonist navigates romance and rejection in New York City with honesty and optimism. Jessica James dances badly on her roof, plays sillily with her students and speaks forthrightly with her men.
The 25-year-old playwright graduated from a prestigious university, and now works a fulfilling job, teaching theatre to a racially diverse cohort of children in one of the country’s most expensive zip codes. That job seemingly affords her a comfortable apartment in one of Brooklyn’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods—though it’s quite possible her parents are helping her out. In Brooklyn, Jessica confides in her white best—and as far as we can tell, only—friend (Noël Wells), and balances the affections of two compassionate lovers—one white (Chris O’Dowd) and one black (Lakeith Stanfield).
Yet in a film with interesting and often underrepresented socioeconomic factors abound, questions of race and class are almost never raised. There is something useful and good about that. There’s something unsettling about it, too.
Since last fall, in engaging with media outlets in anticipation of The Incredible Jessica James’ premiere, Williams has made it clear that the movie’s colorblindness is deliberate.
For one, she’s tired. “[There] is this idea that you need to be a perfect woman of color,” lamented Williams in a Vulture Q&A. “There’s an idea that you need to be a perfect feminist, you need to be a perfect womanist.”
After achieving acclaim for her tackling of race and gender on The Daily Show, Williams translated that same social consciousness to the comedy podcast she co-hosts, 2 Dope Queens. Reportedly, it took a therapist’s convincing for Williams to realize her art need not always be so politically engaged.
So, when it came to The Incredible Jessica James a romantic comedy, “There was no mention of race, and that wasn’t necessarily what the movie was about,” Williams told EBONY. “I think the movie can be seen as progressive, I think it’s progressive to talk about race, and I think it can be progressive to have the characters not really discuss it and just allow them to exist.”
And The Incredible Jessica James exists in a way much like Williams does. Williams went to predominately white schools in an upper-class Los Angeles neighborhood. She’s dates a white man. She has a deep appreciation of white pop culture. She and black women like her deserve to see themselves on screen. The notion of a monolithic black community or experience is not an accurate one. There are black communities. There are black experiences. And we are just now beginning to see the spectrum of them in media.
But Williams’ particular upbringing, and the fact that Jessica James’s race, class and comfort with white folks is never called into question, affords both the actress and the character a sort of universality. Pointing to the film’s dearth of racial commentary, Ashley Rey writes for Bustle that The Incredible Jessica James is one of those feel-good movies that women, of all races and ethnicities, could look at and possibly see themselves.”
And herein lies the problem. The Incredible Jessica James’s colorblindness gives it its perceived universality; that addressing notions of race and class would have complicated the titular character’s relatability. But in all honesty, race is an ever-present consideration for black Americans in a country where we are only 13 percent and white Americans are 77 percent.
Sure, The Incredible Jessica James’s colorblindness purports a set of truths—but it subjugates a set of others without interrogation. Take the fact that even as interracial coupling becomes more common, studies have proven black women are the least desired by non-black men in the world of online dating—a statistic Williams knows well. She covered it on The Daily Show.
And while that data evidences an immediate, physical aversion to black women, America holds a psychological aversion to black women too, especially black women who are loud, aggressive, demanding —much like Jessica James.
However, James’s forthrightness reads differently than, say, Cookie Lyon’s, because it is shaped by Williams’, which is shaped by the white suburb in which she was raised. Proximity to whiteness has meant that Williams’ blackness often looks or sounds like what we understand whiteness to look or sound like. And because of that, it’s easy not to see it as blackness at all.
“I was always told that I acted too white,” Williams told NPR just one day before Jessica James would be released on Netflix. If Williams forced her audience to reckon with her blacknesss —if she and her lover experienced a moment of racial tension, if she and her BFF explored Bushwick’s gentrification— could she still be a stand in for all shades of women?
As Williams and others make a claim for The Incredible Jessica James’ universality, we are reminded of the reality of American relatability, which is that in this country, the default is whiteness and any hope for cross-cultural understanding must cater to it.