The Incredible Jessica Williams Saves Sundance from Trump Depression
The former ‘Daily Show’ correspondent on her star turn in the Sundance hit ‘The Incredible Jessica James,’ learning to find her voice, and why diversity matters now more than ever.
When Jessica Williams and I meet up in Park City, where her breakout new film The Incredible Jessica James will close the Sundance Film Festival, we give each other that look. The heavy sigh. The sad shoulder slump.
“I know,” she says. At the same time Williams was riding high off the first two screenings of the film, her biggest project since her work as the first black woman hired as a correspondent on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Donald Trump had literally just finished delivering his inauguration speech.
“Today was pretty booty city,” Williams, who will be among the speakers Saturday morning at Sundance’s satellite Women’s March led by Chelsea Handler, says. “So let’s just celebrate the magic of film. Because oh my god. Oh my god.”
As in: oh my god, can you believe what’s happening? But also: oh my god, there’s so much joy to be had.
The film was written for her by writer-director Jim Strouse, who told press, “I think Jessica is a unicorn,” a phrase used to describe Williams’s character—a struggling New York City playwright balancing romance and self-love, in the movie. In its early review, Variety said, “Some people are born to be movie stars, and The Incredible Jessica James successfully makes the case for leading lady Jessica Williams.”
So, yes, there was occasion for joy.
Introducing the film to the first screening audience Thursday night, Williams even set the tone for the specific kind of joy.
“This is really important to me,” she said. “I just got my braids redone and my edges laid for this screening. If you’re white and you don’t understand what I said, find the nearest cocoa person and ask them to elaborate. This is Sundance, you guys should open up your minds.
Asked to elaborate the next afternoon, she laughs. “I knew there was gonna be a bunch of photos and I was trying to be fancy.” But then she gets serious, even apologizing midway through her earnestness for being “a cheeseball.”
“Sundance, this year, I’m really excited about because it seems very diverse,” she says. “The pics are fucking awesome. And I think that’s the beauty of film. Sometimes it can say something really beautiful that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to engage with immediately in your day-to-day.”
The Incredible Jessica James is, at heart, an indie romcom about a struggling artist. But it’s way more transgressive than that. A wildly entertaining showcase for Williams’s explosive screen presence, confidence, and point of view, it is an indie romcom about a struggling artist who is a black woman.
That’s a thing. She knows it, too. Her film and films like it that are premiering at Sundance this year, they’re special. It’s special for these stories to be told now, at a time when everyone is in a tailspin.
“Now more than ever it’s really important to hear diverse voices,” she says.
She mentions her podcast 2 Dope Queens, which she hosts with fellow comedian Phoebe Robinson, a very purposeful respite and platform. “We give women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community opportunities to do stand-up and do comedy, just because we think they’re really funny,” she says. “And comedy is a straight, white, male-driven world.”
Williams knows about opportunity. In 2012, she became the youngest correspondent ever hired on The Daily Show. She was also a black woman, who wore her braids, her womanhood, and her blackness on a show that had never spotlighted that before.
When Stewart announced he was leaving the desk, Williams was a fan favorite candidate to replace him. There was even a petition. Williams, in response, seized her own agency. She shot down all talk. She left the show last summer after striking her own development deal with Comedy Central.
Her own voice. Her own opportunity. And, now, her own film playing to raucous audience responses at Sundance.
Williams and Strauss had worked together before on the film People Places Things, which played two years ago at Sundance. Strauss’s biggest regret from that project: that Williams wasn’t in it more. Someone needs to write her a movie, he thought. Then: maybe that someone should be me.
Both Williams and Strauss live in Brooklyn, and would meet up to pitch and massage ideas until they developed Jessica James. Strauss listened to 2 Dope Queens religiously and had watched The Daily Show, shocking Williams with the specificity with which he nailed her voice.
When we meet Jessica James, she’s on a Tinder date. She’s fresh from a break up. But, as she specifies in the opening line of the movie, “I think it’s really dangerous to seek personal fulfillment through romantic relationships.” She then launches the most vicious skewering of her date’s Tinder behavior that has yet to be committed to film, rising from the ashes of her sick burns to stage an epic dance party in her Bushwick apartment.
So what makes Jessica James so incredible?
“I think it’s her being just so unapologetically herself,” Williams says. “What makes her incredible is that she makes sure she honors herself first. That romance is not her only thing.”
How much of that reflects Williams’s own personality, and how much of it is aspirational?
“Just in my day-to-day, something like self-confidence and self-love is not a destination I just arrive at,” she says. “It’s more of a journey. Where Monday I’ll feel shitty about my body and Tuesday I’ll feel like the hottest bitch in the world, you know? I think it just ebbs and flows.”
There’s a scene in The Incredible Jessica James where Jessica is on a date with a character played by Chris O’Dowd named Boone. Thinking that Jessica is a walking suit of armor and the human manifestation of self-confidence, he is shocked to learn that she is actually really insecure.
You’d be shocked to learn that Williams is much the same way.
“I think there’s this myth of the strong black woman that exists, where we can’t be these penetrable characters,” she says. “People are so layered and complicated and dynamic. Like, yeah, this is a character that I’m playing. But there are shades of me that are insecure a lot of times.”
“It comes back to what we were saying about how important it is to show diverse voices,” she continues. “I think Jessica James in inherently diverse because I am black. The character is black. And she’s a woman. She’s diverse. I think the story isn’t complicated, but I think that she, just from being who she is, is telling a new story.”
Williams is just 27. She was 24 when she was hired for The Daily Show. That was—and remains—incredibly young to be the kind of public figure whose words are internalized by and influential to a demographic not used to seeing a young black woman on their screens being unapologetically herself.
“I suddenly realize, ‘Oh, this is a major platform,’” she says, remembering the responses that began pouring in after her first few Daily Show segments. “So I need to make sure that I’m not just speaking to say words. And also that I’m saying things that I’m deeply convicted in, that I’m using my platform to tell my truth.”
“Because if people are listening to you and you have the honor of being somebody that people watch,” she continues, “then I should respect them and honor them by trying to make sure that I am forthright with my convictions and what I believe.”
Now, of all times—this inauguration weekend, this Women’s March, this festival celebrating diverse voices—it’s a statement of values that rings, well, incredible.