What happens when the dreams and aspirations of one’s youth become yoked by the demands of reality? In the case of Juanita Lewiston, a second-shift nurse in the cancer ward of an Ohio hospital, the desire to travel lost appeal when marriage, three children, divorce and a grandchild reprioritized her time over a thirty-year period. In the interim, a regular sexual dalliance fantasy with actor Blair Underwood and an ongoing conversation with herself, pacifies her wants. When a moment of clarity arises – Juanita, played by the amazing Alfre Woodard, picks out a destination on a map – Butte, Montana – and purchases a one-way Greyhound ticket. Leaving her job, family – and a begging Blair Underwood (who in her fantasies needs to borrow $60), she sets off to reclaim the parts of herself that worry, stress, and fear, stalled.
Equally refreshing to Juanita’s desire to fulfill lost dreams, is her utter vulnerability. It’s the type of representation missing from mainstream Black female characters and one that makes Juanita’s character loveable, and Woodard’s performance, relatable. As a long-time lover of Woodard’s work, I easily place this performance among the favorites alongside Mariah Dillard (Luke Cage), and Ruby Jean Reynolds (True Blood).
Juanita curses a lot and even that becomes comical – as it is the language women often think, but out of respectability politics, will not utter. For instance, when her grown children – one she describes as a half a thug, another as a hoe, and the last as ‘in jail,’ confront her about running off on a travel adventure, her response: “Y’all grown. I ain’t got to be up here waiting on you. You got to do for yourselves and I don’t have to tell you where I’m going or when I’m coming back. Matter of fact, I ain’t got to do shit for y’all no more.”
Juanita finds herself in a town called Paper Moon, working in a diner and finding a replacement for Blair Underwood in the restaurant’s Native American owner, Jess, played by Adam Beach.
Beach told The Hollywood Reporter that he found it rare to be in a leading man role as a Native American in a lead role actor. "We want to show the reality of the world we live in," Beach said. "Like, if you walk down the street in New York City, you don’t just see a whitewash of people. So, it’s changing. And this film proves that we can make a good product if we’re offered an opportunity."
Beach brings the character Jess, with his military combat guilt, French cuisine artistry, and loneliness, to life. There is a gentleness and a strength rarely scripted and delivered in Beach’s performance. It, like Woodard’s proved breaths of fresh air.
Roderick Spencer, the film’s screenwriter has been married to Woodard for nearly 40 years and said the roles for Black women have often caused abundantly talented performers like his wife from expanding their resumes.
“When I read [the script], I was like, ‘Oh my god: a road movie of a woman of a certain age who hasn’t given up, who’s still punching, has strong opinions, loves her kids but is sick of them — all of those things that women of every generation and every race go through,'" Spencer said. "I just thought, ‘If we do this right, we’re going to have a movie to which a lot of people can relate.”
Juanita showcases the vibrancy of tribal communities and the rituals that continue to guide their existences with Woodard taking part in a pow-wow and cleansing ceremony. Juanita is receptive and respectful; Jess, guiding and caring.
Love comes. Passion comes.
Of her scenes with Blair Underwood, who is called by name in the film, Woodard said her husband wrote the actor in to show off his wife’s more playful side.
“My husband said, ‘People have no idea how wacky you are. They think you’re so serious.’ Blair’s wife, Desiree (DaCosta) said something similar, that everybody thinks Blair’s so suave — but he’s a crazy man. So, we’re both getting to play in this arena where our personalities actually live. It was so much fun. We were cracking up.”
Juanita is currently streaming on Netfilix.