“Prioritizing Intuition and Mystery”: Jazmin Jones and Olivia McKayla Ross Discuss ‘Seeking Mavis Beacon’
Seeking Mavis Beacon follows two fabulously charming e-girl detectives: director Jazmin Renée Jones and associate producer Olivia McKayla Ross, as they pick up the trail of a digital ghost—Mavis Beacon. The eponymous teacher from the 80s and 90s era software, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, Mavis taught millions how to type as one of the most visible Black women avatars on computer screens around the world, enriching the white men who created the software using her image. Even while being an inspiration and technological guide to so many—especially young Black girls, the true identity of the Haitian-born cover model for the software remained a mystery relegated to the pre-internet age. Our two DIY investigators set out to give this cultural icon her flowers, setting up a detectives’ headquarters in Oakland, joining in conversation with some of today’s wisest and most reflective internet writers and theorists to do some highly skilled cyberstalking on the road to uncovering the origins of this digital avatar and the real Black woman who was its avatar, Renée L’Espérance.
My own experience with the film espoused a theme of Seeking Mavis Beacon—the familial familiar, as I am also in familial community with some of those featured in the film and have been familiar with Jazmin for some years now through their work as a co-founder of the collective BUFU. The film carefully and joyfully explores a collection of very contemporary anxieties and the new erratum produced by our global, digital (Black) cultures. Jazmin and Olivia talked with me a couple of days after the film’s premiere at Sundance in the NEXT section for boundary-pushing work about very consciously and transparently searching through the data, queering the investigative form along the way. The film will be released by Neon later this year. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: I love the film, it was so great to see. I laughed, I cried, it was a really good experience throughout. And it was so nice to see friends too—Mandy, Terrell, and Neema, and all these folks, it felt like a community film, so that was beautiful.
OLIVIA MCKAYLA ROSS: It really was.
JAZMIN RENÉE JONES: Shouts out to all of them, it wouldn’t be anything without all of their contributions.
D: Yeah, it was nice to see that. It makes sense as them being a cast of characters in our lives and in the stories that we tell. The film goes into this software program and had me thinking about all the talk about transparency around technology, software, and its developers. I was thinking about you as the filmmakers and what drove your aspiration for transparency. I think a lot about consent and filmmaking, especially in documentaries or other nonfiction work. So I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more about your ethos and your approach.
JRJ: First I just gotta shout out the Combahee River Collective and this idea that the personal is political. I have a really contentious relationship with true crime and investigative projects. I do hate-watch them. But I’m also scrolling on TikTok and, like, it’s half in, half out, so I think it’s a world that I was interested in playing with—the tropes of noir and detective work are cool, but also coming from a collective organizing background, I don’t like policing and surveillance is really scary. I understood the nature of looking for a person who may or may not want to be found is going to come with a lot of follow-up questions and the audience, rightfully, might have feelings about that. The idea of integrating ourselves and showing our methodologies is also a method of allowing there to be some form of accountability, whether or not you like what you see.
OMR: When we’re asking questions of people that we interview, you know exactly what Jaz and I’s priorities are when we’re asking questions. There’s never like, “Huh, I wonder why they do what they do,” because we’re so present and because we also allow parts of our lives to seep into the work. There’s a sense of accountability and also an acknowledgment that cameras are technologies of capture. Ursula K. Le Guin had the whole carrier bag theory of fiction about how the first technology, a lot of people say, was the sphere, but actually, it was the basket. This process of collecting is actually one of the first in terms of becoming a civilization. When can capture be used to save something for someone, and what does it mean to be a memory worker in that way and to twist the angle of cameras being these super carceral tools for surveillance, and how can they be a tool for saving the stuff that other people thought wasn’t as important as we think it is.
D: You were talking about true crime, too. I was curious about some inspirations in terms of detective stories.
JRJ: I always thought that I was—and I am—referencing The Watermelon Woman (1997), in terms of this idea of the character of Faye Richards and going looking for a character and finding out that not only is she just amazing, but she’s also queer. I was definitely thinking about that version of events. Then, when we were maybe partway through post-production, I watched Cauleen Smith’s Drylongso (1998) for the first time, and I was like, “Wait, this is what we’re channeling.” It’s a story about their friendship emerging they’re in a convertible, they’re driving around Oakland pulling tarot cards, building shrines to acknowledge people who have passed. This is what we’re actually in conversation with!
OMR: It feels so close for that to be a reference despite not having been a reference. It’s like, oh actually being part of the lineage, we’re all on the same vibe—it feels like a very cosmic connection.
JRJ: The feeling I had watching Drylongso at Lincoln Center was immediately joy of “oh my god this is what I wanted,” and then anger of “why didn’t anyone show me this? How come no one told me about this?” And also relief of “we’ve wrapped production, and I absolutely would want to pay homage to this, but we already have because it’s like, there’s just so many parallels, so to me—”
D: This is Cauleen Smith’s shirt. [Shows them my shirt.]
JRJ: Look at the parallels. So I think between that film, Watermelon Woman—and then another film that I saw in post-production that just blew my mind in terms of being like how we talk was Chocolate Babies (1996).
OMR: And Shirkers (2018) a little bit.
JRJ: Shirkers, totally, huge reference. So I think those would kind of be in terms of the form inspirations and then I have my bro-y film noir shit too—and I’m competitive, so I do love Rebels of the Neon God (1992)— but representation of women is fucked up. Belly (1998)—visually so compelling—representation of women is fucked up. Uncut Gems (2019)—the creative direction, I love the fish tanks, but again, that shit is intense. Adam Sandler, I don’t know if I’m co-signing. As we were creative directing the film and talking about the actual cinematography, I was throwing out the phrase, “Rebels of a Neon Underbelly.” “Rebels of the Neon Uncut Gem.”
OMR: “Rebels of the Belly Uncut Gem.” “Rebels of the Uncut Belly.”
JRJ: Being a first-time filmmaker with a chip on my shoulder and the boys club never let me in, we wanted to give all these A24 guys a run for their fucking money. So yeah, there’s our queer references in which we honor and trust, and then there’s the dudebros that I was like, I wanna do that too.
D: The aesthetics were beautiful. The Detective HQ, the way you built it was just so amazing—the aesthetics of the space and then also seeing both of you’s fashion throughout the film, all the colors poppin’.
OMR: No stylist, just thrifting.
D: Yea, yea, I can see that. With Drylongso too, because the office was in Oakland, right?
JRJ: I’m from the Bay Area originally. Olivia and I met in New York. I don’t know who said this first and I think it’s something authors say, but it’s like the first story you have to tell is your own. And then you can go on in your career and write whatever. You know, New York is an incredibly rich and cinematic place. With the organizing work of BUFU, I have a lot more favors there. But going back to the Bay and representing that place felt really important to me.
And also, there’s such a history of unused warehouse space. The headquarters was the result of a chaotic email I sent to a nonprofit being like, “I’m doing this thing. You do this thing. We could do this thing. I also noticed you don’t have any people like us in your organization. We could really round it out. I bet that would help your mission statement, wouldn’t it?” And then they were like, “Okay, sure. Well, I don’t know.” So yeah, the Bay was really important. And it’s interesting. I think the conversation around where Oakland is at is that it’s down bad. We need help out in Oakland.
I think Keith Lee, the TikToker, just went out there and had to leave early and I think he did a great job talking about how this is not the time to be doing this in Oakland, but for me, I’m also like, it’s a joyous place. It’s beautiful. There are lots of artists and organizers that are working underneath the radar and have these under-the-table deals with these slumlords to get their shit off and to me Oakland just seemed like a really important place to highlight in terms of that spirit of the film. Also, it helps that we’re so close to Silicon Valley, and it just so happened that a lot of the developers and people related to the software lived in the Bay.
D: With the film being kind of a spiritual mission, searching for a digital ghost, a digital ancestor—you guys revere Renée and what she represented. But, the film also visualizes the search for Black women—a story, a thread, an anxiety that is very present amongst Black folks. For myself, just in the past year, I think I’ve had at least two Black women in my life who have gone missing at some point. And then it becomes some sort of search, whether it’s a day, multiple days, or weeks. So I was curious if this search that you all did in the film had echoes in your own lives outside of the film.
JRJ: I think you see my obsession develop with this question. We were very aware that there would be people like you in the audience that have directly been affected by Black women going missing, and in community, I’m probably familiar with a few of the people you’re talking about. But also in terms of my interpersonal life, we’re aware of the seriousness and there’s also a playfulness that we’re trying to integrate with it. It’s complicated.
OMR: I feel like in many ways because we are our own target audience, there was a knowledge of how much this hurts. And so there was a sense very early on of trying to infuse a level of laughter and playfulness because we had no idea what we would find. She could have passed away by the time we looked for her, we might be saying our thank yous to an actual ancestor. We were just feeling nosy because we loved her so much. We wanted to do that wellness check and to kind of create a relationship that could for the audience that could be like a container for really difficult feelings and really difficult information, no matter how it came up.
I think that level of bringing in spiritual guides in different forms and having the lovely women who came to bless the space and consecrate the ground really helped create a container where we felt safe to prioritize intuition and mystery over feeling like we had to have all the answers. I think also getting confirmation early on that she is safe, even if we couldn’t figure out how to talk to her, was really important too, on a personal level.
Matazi Weathers is a temporal and spatial film farmer, curator, educator, and filmmaker from Los Angeles always in pursuit of new potentialities. They are the Assistant Curator of Film at LACMA; co-curate Strong-Sissy Black Movie Night, a cinema and political education space; and are founder of Black Bloom, a Black farmers’ cooperative in Los Angeles that provides free education and mentorship to Black folks learning to grow their own medicine.