‘Seeking Mavis Beacon’ Review: Thoughtful Doc Pursues an Elusive Black Icon

Jazmin Renée Jones’ “Seeking Mavis Beacon” isn’t your typical kind of quest movie. Premiering in the NEXT section at Sundance, the format-defying film follows the nonbinary Black filmmaker on an elaborate search to find — but also to better understand — someone who shaped what they thought of the world and themselves. Someone who didn’t really exist: the cover model for popular 1987 computer program “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.”

As past users of the bestselling software surely recall (but may never have consciously considered), Mavis Beacon was a Black woman — knowledgeable and warm, with a striking face and long, elegant fingernails — who encouraged young people to master their keyboard skills. She served as a virtual teacher and confidant for countless kids, including Jones and computer prodigy Olivia McKayla Ross (credited here as an associate producer, though Jones refers to her on camera as “my collaborator”).

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An early example of AI, Mavis Beacon was an invention of three white male computer programmers. Why did they choose a Black woman as their avatar? “I would like to claim that back in 1987, we were totally woke,” says one of these (well-compensated) tech pioneers when Jones puts the question to him. The truth, which the film eventually manages to uncover, was far less strategic.

Mavis Beacon’s face belonged to a Haitian woman named Renee L’Espérance, spotted behind the counter at a California department store. Jones interviews multiple people about that discovery, and each remembers it differently. But there’s no denying the impact it had on Jones and Ross — and who knows how many others? While the filmmakers are obviously obsessed with Mavis Beacon, who among us hasn’t fixated on a figure from our childhoods (whether a fictional avatar or flesh-and-blood celebrity)? Jones’ feat comes from making what matters to her, matter for everyone watching.

Bending the conventional rules of moviemaking, Jones brings a fresh generational perspective to the project. Both she and Ross are young people comfortable with the proliferation and dominance of technology in their lives, to the extent that they make virtual heroes of symbols within their computers. Rather than taking a positive or negative stance on technology, they explore a range of philosophical and sociological considerations, from the notion of “coded bias” to how they personally use technology to communicate and find community.

Ross’ description of herself as a “cyber doula,” committed to helping others use digital tools, is her specific way of trying to make technology friendlier. It’s apt that Jones finds inspiration in Cheryl Dunye’s seminal 1996 queer quest film “The Watermelon Woman,” another narrative about trying to find one’s hero.

As Jones’ search brings her closer to L’Espérance, she addresses complex themes in assured, economical ways: the exploitation of Black women to support and guide others to success, the ramifications of who owns our digital footprints and, most importantly, who gets credit for what when something becomes a huge success. Jones believes that L’Espérance never got what she deserved, despite being a major reason the software was so successful, while the woman who found her got pushed out of the picture as well. The movie seeks to correct these oversights.

As L’Espérance proves elusive even for diligent and committed investigators like Jones and Ross, the film finds itself in a quandary. The quest meant to find Mavis Beacon, but it is also about the filmmakers and what matters most to them. Jones shares how such a single-minded pursuit can consume one’s life, while the film falls in a cycle of repetitive actions. That may be true to the way such research happens, but it doesn’t make for an especially entertaining sit.

Jones and Ross may not have yet met their idol, yet the journey chronicled in “Seeking Mavis Beacon” is affecting and haunting. In pursuing a Don Quixote-like goal, they uncover surprising details along the way about subjects that obsess them. As investigators, they are tenacious and relentless; as filmmakers they are exciting and determined.

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