As a member of Generation X, I’m used to a lot of firsts. We are the first generation to whose parents will have gotten closer to the American Dream than we ever will. We are the first generation we’re having divorced parents was just a common fact of life. And we are the first generation to grow up with the computer. Also, as a generation of latchkey kids, according to the Wall Street Journal, we were the “least parented, least nurtured generation in U.S. history.”
Left alone to our own amusement, and with a personal computer safely not connected to the Internet (because Al Gore hadn’t invented it yet), we spent a lot of time learning and thinking we were playing a game. I learned history shooting deer on the Oregon Trail, I got my grasp of geography by searching the world for Carmen Sandiego, and I was taught typing by Mavis Beacon. Unlike Carmen, who was clearly a digital creation (not to mention an evil villain), Mavis was the kindly teacher who gamified a rather dull activity and emerged our victories, filling in for the parents who had little time for us.
Sundance NEXT documentary Seeking Mavis Beacon, from director Jazmin Renee Jones and her co-investigtor Olivia McKayla Ross, pulls us back into those days of the later 80s, reexamining the legacy of not just the software, but the woman on the cover of the software box, the so-called Mavis Beacon. The personal and engaging, sometimes extremely tangential, journey she makes reveals much about the power that putting a woman of color on a software box had for a generation of children looking for role models. However, Jones also gets to inherent and unspoken racism of three white men deciding that this was the image they wanted to ground their brand, calling the model Renee L’Espérance their “Aunt Jemima.”
Jones and Ross get it in their head that the key to understanding their connection to the software is to track down the model who first portrayed Mavis Beacon, a Haitian born woman plucked from the perfume Connor of Saks 5th Ave by former talk-show host now chairman of The Software Toolworks, Les Crane. Though they are able to snag sit downs with nearly everyone important in the creation of the Mavis beacon mythology, the woman on the box remains elusive. But this film is as much a story of discovery of the past as it is a story of the discovery of self. Both Jones and Ross are at crossroads in their life and this project takes on a much deeper cultural significance as they begin considering questions of digital security and Black representation. Is there some reason Mavis doesn’t want to be found? Is it actually important that she be found?
I don’t want to ruin the final outcome of the search, but along the way the audience is sure to find a new understanding of the power of the visual image and the importance of controlling that power. Although it may be about 10 minutes too long and it ran a bit out of steam the more the documentary focused on the investigators then the investigation, Seeking Mavis Beacon is as thought provoking a film as I’ve seen in a long time, and made me laugh out loud upwards of 25 times, which is never expected in a documentary. Although we may never get the chip off our shoulder from the parental abandonment that we overcame, Generation X will always have it’s substitute heroes, and this documentary is a worthy expression of gratitude to one of the great ones.
[This review was typed at 27 words per minute by Bears Rebecca Fonte – hey I haven’t played Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing since the early 90s]
– Bears Rebecca Fonté (@BearsFonte)