Netflix’s new heartfelt romantic comedy Juanita is based off Sheila Williams’ Dancing on the Edge of the Roof: A Novel. The Juanita of the novel is 41. Alfre Woodard, the absolutely stellar actress who plays the lead character Juanita Lewis in the film, is 66. Woodard is wonderful, but in taking this role she has erased a particular black woman from a story that has long needed to be told.
“On the surface, ‘Juanita’ is a fantasy that gives its older black heroine permission to chase her happiness, whatever that may be (the narrative wonderfully portrays it simply as elsewhere). But even more than that, the film is a testament to how necessary and urgent it is for black women to embark on purely selfish adventures in order to rediscover themselves.”Candice Frederick
The original Juanita is in her very early forties with three grown children and a grandchild that she cares for. And her age is important to the story conveyed. Because the Juanita of Dancing is a woman who did not get to enjoy a rebellious and adventurous adolescence and young adulthood because she was too busy fulfilling the obligations of being a mother. And now here she is at 41, the last of what she believes to be her youth and vibrancy slipping away, and she is stuck repeating her narrow, tiny life with her grandchild as she did with her children. That is what drives her to pick up and go. Somewhere. Anywhere. To be something other than what she has always been.
A Juanita in her early sixties who waited until she was well into her thirties to start having children—the Juanita that Woodard plays—would have had ample time to “live” in the space between her youth and her maternal obligations. And we are given no information on what Juanita did during that span of time and why it was not enough to satisfy her. And I believe that information is necessary. I think devoting more time to Juanita’s phobias regarding travel and open spaces and how it had limited her would have helped to make sense of these glaring gaps.
I enjoyed Juanita thoroughly, but the stretched timeline that went unaddressed became an elephant in the room over the course of the film. I would love to see more romances involving women in their forties and in their sixties that address the particular roles these women play in our society and culture. Altering the script of Juanita to address the particular concerns of Woodard’s generation instead of “playing it straight” from the novel would have improved an already semi-solid romantic comedy.