I burned it all up, I burned it up until nothing was left, but the fire. And then in Eddie came with the baby.Jean, “I’m Your Woman”
Attending Sundance 2016 was a trip on my bucket list that I never thought I’d take, and suddenly it seemed like it was my destiny. I was not a film journalist at that time, I was just a film lover (still am!). I had organized a film discussion group called the Chicago Film Lover Exchange, and spent all of my free non-work hours organizing film discussions, seeing movies and talking about what I loved: cinema. In 2015, I had been organizing these film discussions for over 4 years, and I was ready to take my film love to another level. Sundance was that level: it was mecca to me. I did my research on the history of the festival, and watched a lot of the films that won Jury prizes in past years. It was important for me to go to Sundance prepared and with my eyes and heart open. It was almost like I was a character in a story that had not yet fully developed, but had a fire to be more. When I arrived at Sundance, I felt I had finally arrived within myself. Going alone, I surprised myself by the experiences I had, and how I was able to open myself up to people. I felt like I had come to a planet where there were people like me everywhere who had cinema as their common language. I savored the moments, and I journaled about them as well as my growth that occured as a result. I also savored the films I saw like “The Fits”, “Uncle Howard”, and “Joshy”. At the end of my trip I came to the conclusion, “I am not finished yet, my story is just beginning.”
Julia Hart, in her film “I’m Your Woman,” created an embodiment of the idea that “you’re never finished” through the new beginnings embraced by her main character Jean, played by Rachel Brosnahan. The film takes place in the 1970s and is a thriller following a woman being pushed into near death situations as she is on the run from her husband’s killers. A very important aspect to know about the film is where the character of Jean came from. The catalyst for the film came from Michael Mann’s debut feature, “Thief” (1981). It is a beloved film of Julia and her husband Jordan Horowitz, who co-wrote and produced “I Am Your Woman”. Julia took an underwritten character from “Thief” and gave her a life by flipping the 1970s gritty genre and centering it around a female character.
After I watched the film virtually through the AFI fest, I was fascinated by the steps the film took in my psyche. The genre flip showed me something onscreen I had never seen before and I noticed the details more because of that. I was so intrigued that I would continue to watch the film three more times before writing this essay.
“I’m Your Woman” opens with familiar feelings of frustration fueled by what it feels like to have your story told for you. That frustration of not knowing independence is within your grasp, or that you have a choice of living a different life. That’s where we start with Jean, who is complacent in her role assigned by the world. She has married a successful thief and is unable to have children, with adoption rendered impossible by her husband’s profession. But there is a fire there deep inside: “I burned it all up, I burned it up until nothing was left, but the fire.” This all changes when her husband Eddie brings home a baby for her, saying “it’s ours”. After Jean gets the child, she must immediately leave her home and go into hiding after Eddie kills the boss.
The baby, named Harry, becomes a permanent extension to Jean. In the beginning, he is always crying, and she is always picking him up. Cal (Arinzé Kene) is the main supporting character we meet first. Cal takes Jean away into hiding after her husband Eddie is on the run after shooting “the boss”, which is where we leave off in “Thief”. Cal is quiet about his personal life, and tries to keep an emotional distance from Jean in the beginning because he sees her as “a job”. When they first escape the house, they are staying at a motel. The baby cries, and Cal picks him up and sticks his pinkie into his mouth for him to chew on. The crying stops. Jean is impressed, but when she starts to press him for questions, he does not indulge. The baby represents the vulnerability of the cold hearted reality that Jean and Cal find themselves in. As an extension to Jean, the crying of the baby represents her own screams of confusion that she does not let out.
One of the more touching scenes and a period of levity is when Cal and Jean are in a diner in between the periods of chaos and confusion. Jean is not feeling like she is a good mother, but Cal asks, “Do you make him laugh?” And she goes on to sing the Aretha Franklin song she uses to calm Harry, “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman,” in a way that is funny. And it is funny. We see that Jean is getting her footing, and recognizing her strength as a mother beyond just survival and protection for her child.
It is amazing to see the superpowers you hold when life puts you in tight corners. Jean finds herself in many near-death situations running from Eddie’s killers. The second main supporting actor we meet is Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who reflects the past of the “Thief” character that Jean is based on. She has lived a life of chaos and survival, and has found love with Cal, we learn. Teri is the first person who takes Jean’s questions and quest to find out the truth about Eddie seriously. Teri takes Jean out of hiding and into the city for answers.
Near the end, Jean comes to a place where the screams and the cries need to come out. And it happens at a laundromat. This is a turning point for Jean, since for most of the film she has been in survival mode, without a lot of time to breathe. After Sundance 2016, a couple years later, I started my magazine Cinema Femme. I was hardly in Jean’s situation, but I felt as I was on survival mode while being homeless for six months while I sublet my apartment, and slept on friends’ couches so I could pay my bills. You need that time to find perspective to recognize your own value, and to be able to move on in a way that makes sense. This happened when I met my boyfriend of almost two years now. Sometimes you forget those pieces of yourself that need to be loved. In the laundromat, this nice older lady takes the comforting role for Jean, patting her and saying “it’s going to be alright”. This redemptive moment gives Jean the courage and strength to help Teri and Cal, who’ve been supporting her throughout the film.
We see Jean, Teri, and Cal go through a lot towards the end of the film. We’ve now followed Jean through some terrifying experiences, and we end with a question mark, but it’s a hopeful one. Jean’s story is not finished yet.
“I’m Your Woman” comes to Prime on Friday, December 11th.