By Lucy Spicer
“Did you think Mavis Beacon was a real person?”
This is a question that pervades Jazmin Renée Jones’ feature directorial debut, Seeking Mavis Beacon, which premiered January 20 at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, Utah. Mavis Beacon isn’t a real person, but to some, she might as well be. The fictional character was the face of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing — computer software designed to teach touch typing, first released in the late ’80s — and she became an unlikely icon for representation of Black women in technology.
The documentary, which screens in the NEXT section at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, addresses this Mandela effect that has people swearing they recall Mavis Beacon winning typing contests or being presented with awards. What was so compelling about this woman that her character caused people to misremember history?
Jones and her associate producer and friend, Olivia McKayla Ross, take up the roles of amateur investigators as they embark on a search for the real-life woman, a Haitian-born model named Renée L’Espérance, behind the software cover. No one interviewed has heard from L’Espérance in decades, but Jones wants the opportunity to express to her how formative her image was to so many kids growing up. Along the way, Jones and Ross encounter questions about residuals, Black women in service roles, digital privacy, and more.
The documentary is just as much about Jones’ and Ross’ investigative process and self-reflection as it is about the actual search for L’Espérance. “This film was five years in the making,” says Jones at the documentary’s post-premiere Q&A. “I definitely don’t think we knew this was gonna take five years. I’m glad we didn’t know that. I don’t know if I would’ve had as easy of a time convincing Olivia to join me in this endeavor, let alone any of the people involved.”
Interspersed with footage of conversations between Jones and Ross and interviews with those who knew L’Espérance are social media videos of people discussing the phenomenon that was Mavis Beacon. We view these videos as if on Jones’ computer. “The goal was that it would basically translate as like you’re in the computer of Olivia and I, seeing the way this information is being filtered through our algorithms,” says Jones.
The mystery that drives Seeking Mavis Beacon, of course, is whether or not Jones and Ross find L’Espérance. But the film benefits more from the journey than the destination. Seeing Jones and Ross cope with setbacks — COVID-19 and a sketchy landlord included — reminds us that we are observing artists grow and develop in real time.
“I think this film is congruent with the history of what Olivia and I experienced,” says Jones. “It is not up to a journalistic standard, but it is truthful, and I do think that you are on the journey with us as we’re reconciling with this.”
Among the duo’s logistical difficulties, tough conversations, and honest self-reflections are moments of tenderness and joy. After all, this project began from a place of love and admiration. “We were making this film at a time in the pandemic in 2020; heightened times, you know,” says producer Guetty Felin, who is also Jones’ mother-in-law. “George Floyd, Black folks were being brutalized on the streets… [we] just did not want to make a film about trauma, and one thing that we always pitched was that we’re making a serious film, but we want levity at the same time.”
To see more of the magic from the 2024 Festival, click here.