“Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing” is a software program that’s been teaching kids to type since 1987. But when director Jazmin Jones and associate producer Olivia McKayla Ross set out to discover the real Mavis Beacon for their Sundance documentary Seeking Mavis Beacon, they quickly realized she may not want to be found.
As a result, their beautifully crafted documentary gets incredibly meta.
Distributed by NEON, Seeking Mavis Beacon premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this week. In essence, it’s a documentary about the making of a documentary, as much about the emotional journey of Jones and Ross as it is about Renée L’Espérance, a Haitian woman who was working in a Los Angeles department store in the 1980s when she was asked to model as the fictional character Mavis Beacon.
When “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing” turned out to be a bestseller used by countless students around the world, L’Espérance became known as a pioneering figure in the representation of Black women in technology.
But little is known about the real woman behind the famous face of Mavis Beacon. Throughout the course of the doc, Jones and Ross explain their awareness of the fact that, in searching for the elusive L’Espérance — who hadn’t been seen publicly or associated with “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing” in decades — they risked infringing on what might be her deliberate choice to stay out of the spotlight.
Jazmin Jones on Making Seeking Mavis Beacon
“There’s no such thing as an objective documentary,” Jones told MovieMaker. “Every cut is loaded with a politic, and I wanted us to be able to be held accountable for the processes that we use in our investigative methods.”
While the documentary begins as a search to find L’Espérance and ask her how she feels about being the face of such an influential software program — indeed, an image that inspired many young people of color to see themselves in technological professions — Seeking Mavis Beacon is also grapples with how to honor L’Espérance’s legacy while respecting her privacy.
So, instead of finding its emotional arc through L’Espérance herself, Seeking Mavis Beacon instead crafts it through the stories and experiences of Jones and Ross — two Black women who look up to Mavis Beacon as a symbol of belonging. And that meant embracing their own biases as filmmakers.
“I’m often bothered by documentaries that try to position themselves as objective, especially with true crime,” Jones said. “I watch a lot of true crime, and when we get to episode three of whatever limited series, I’ve forgotten all of the names of the characters and the dates, and I’m like, ‘What are we even doing anymore?’ So for me, I’m an investigator, but I actually don’t really care about those details. I want to know about the feelings and the vibe.”
Dubbing Seeking Mavis Beacon a “vibe oriented investigation,” she adds, “We wanted to make sure that there was enough information there for the true crime junkies that are tapping in and want to actually learn about Mavis Beacon, but also, I’m like, ‘Yo, let’s make a buddy film. Let’s make a coming of age film, we ourselves. It’s inherently political that we are deciding to do this work and make this film.”
But choosing ethics over drama meant having to make the difficult choice to leave some parts of the investigation out of the film in order to respect L’Espérance’s privacy.
“We’ve actually chosen to withhold a lot of information that we found out about Renée. It’s important to us that while people aren’t inspired by what we’re doing — they can’t recreate our steps. And so we were thinking about, like, doxxing this person and the fact that the project went public before we knew how she felt about the project. And so, it was kind of this tricky thing,” she said.
“I’m really satisfied that people feel like they’re getting the whole story because we did make a lot of decisions out of respecting her privacy to cut certain things.”
She credits Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 rom-com drama The Watermelon Woman as her inspiration. It starred Dunye as Cheryl, a young, Black, queer woman who works in a video store while making a film about a Black actress from the 1930s.
“I wanted to continue on in that legacy,” Jones says, adding that she wants the film to act as a “role model to people in our age groups that you can do stuff. You don’t have to be a specialist, you don’t have to be trained. I’d say, from the genesis of the project, the idea of actually showing the investigation unfold was a part of it.”
Seeking Mavis Beacon premiered on Jan. 20 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City. Its wide release date has not yet been set.
Main Image: A still from Seeking Mavis Beacon courtesy of NEON.