Seeking Mavis Beacon
(USA, 102 min.)
Dir. Jazmin Renée Jones
I spent much of Seeking Mavis Beacon wanting more from what’s touched upon throughout the film but never examined with much depth. The film engages in a broad investigation, echoing in part the techniques that make crime podcasts or social media videos where the promises of hidden truths are to be revealed so popular. Director Jazmin Renée Jones and her young friend Olivia McKayla Ross are on the hunt for the real-life woman behind the image of the “Aunt Jemima of Software.”
Launched in 1987, “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing” helped gamify the process of touch typing, letting generations of people advance from the hunt-and-peck method through the use of repetition and encouragement. The box art was emblazoned with the image of Mavis herself, a woman of African descent dressed in a smart looking blouse and beaming with a radiant smile.
The Beacon character was initially portrayed by the Haiti-born model Renée L’Espérance, and much of Jones’ film is occupied with a years-long quest to track down the person behind the image. She finds the original developers who share their well-rehearsed stories of how L’Espérance was discovered, and enthuse about how much of an effect that Mavis’s image had on generations of student typists.
As the superficial elements of the story receive closer examination, there’s a grander, conspiratorial air to the whole affair, where the impetus to set records straight overwhelms any concerns about ignoring the implication that L’Espérance wishes to avoid the spotlight decades on. On the one hand, Jones and Ross come across as tenacious gumshoes, following the leads and their hunches while connecting with those closest to their subject.
On the other hand, there’s a strong sense throughout that Beacon is literally what her name evokes: a light by which these two cinematic detectives have their attention drawn to regardless of the cost, either economic, social or educational. As Seeking Mavis Beacon unfolds, these two reveal themselves as either strong willed individuals who refuse to comply with society, or, as they themselves joke, they’re stalkers of a different kind, pushing the limits of privacy and caring only about their own project regardless of who they trample along the way.
Added to the fray are other tidbits, a chaotic burst of YouTube and TikTok clips scattered throughout, hinting at larger themes like the way AI deals with African-American identity, or the systemic modes by which elements of racism are baked into the models that inform the massive databases that fuel generative software results. Yet just as these deeper questions are considered, the film slips back into the search, flies off to Florida in another flawed attempt to lock the subject down.
Then there are the more, shall we say, “metaphysical” moments, where, once again, facts are merged with feelings. Instead of coming to turns with truths, discoveries make way for more personal sentiments. At times, this approach successfully shades the various interlocutions. At other times it feels like a cheat, as if one simply throws up one’s hands and believes absent any evidence that the quest is a noble one.
The result is a film as chaotic as its form, at times coalescing into something fascinating, at others feeling little more than indulgent and self-serving. It’s a slippery series of subjects being tackled, of course, but it’s all the more frustrating when the asides are dropped without much in the way of follow up, and where other elements are detailed with little in the way of results.
Seeking Mavis Beacon feels a bit like one of those aimless days spent online, scrolling post after post, getting glimpses in brief snippets of deeper things only to have something else pop up to catch our interest. Its deficit of attention is both its strength and its weakness. This simple story about a reluctant former cover model becomes, in its unique, haphazard, and somehow almost effective way, a deeper rumination upon class, race and representation.
Much time is spent on the version of the box art that used a woodcut-like illustration, but no time is spent wondering why people’s insistence for being presented with an image to their own taste, even in virtual form. Why should it be a problem that the “fatter” version of Mavis should be allowed to stand? Can one be accused of bodyshaming a logo? Once again, these aspects are touched upon, but there’s little in the way of deeper investigation, or even, seemingly, self-awareness of the implicit biases that the filmmaker brings to the fore. It’s messy stuff, told messily.
At the core, the film is a fascinating tale of how representation, even in its virtual form, can reshape culture. It suggests how the flippant view of the “Mandela effect” has less to do with a blip in the simulation than with everyone being wrong at once. The film also evokes the long-standing form in which images of Black women are used to nourish collective hungers, skills or imaginations, a stepping stone to greater success where the facilitator’s progress is restricted to that of a smiling, supportive figure.
There is certainly an audience for this film and, despite its flaws, it illustrates some highly provocative storylines worthy of attention. Overall, it feels like a film that’s simply flipping the channels, never quite sure how to land, but encouraging us to go along for the ride. The issue then is whether we’re to be enthralled by the journey, or to be appalled when personal obsessions trump deeper truths. It’s a difficult balance, one that the film doesn’t quite pull off effectively.
Seeking Mavis Beacon premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.