“Seeking Mavis Beacon” is a documentary about (stick with me here) seeking Mavis Beacon. But, what it is not (and stick with me here, too) is a documentary about finding Mavis Beacon. Because whether investigators Jazmin Jones and Olivia McKayla Ross track her down or not, this is the tale about how their obsessive search for a computerized typing tutor reflects their own journeys as young women of color at the crossroads of life and technology.
“Mavis Beacon” was the instructor in a series of best-selling educational computer programs called “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.” She was a Black woman in a position of authority, helping new generations develop skills that would assist them in an increasingly online world.
She also wasn’t a real person, even though on the box art she was portrayed by a real woman named Renée L’Espérance, and later — after a series of mysterious developments — by several other stand-ins.
To those who grew up with “Mavis Beacon,” finding out she’s fictional may be a revelation in-and-of-itself. Jones and Ross describe a largescale Mandela Effect, in which a whole generation seems convinced that Mavis Beacon did the publicity circuit, was interviewed on television, and even won some pretty big awards. Perhaps because her impact was so tangible, it added to the illusion that Beacon was too.
Jones and Ross both grew up with “Mavis Beacon” and now, as filmmakers and, in Ross’s case, a computer programmer, they live a life that Mavis Beacon partially made possible. The visual language of “Seeking Mavis Beacon” is aggressively online, with stories told via computer screens and social media. Jones and Ross build themselves a headquarters that the cast of Iain Softley’s “Hackers” would envy, with garish lights, piles of retro computer consoles, and cultural iconography that inspires them
Their hunt for Renée L’Espérance, who fell off the grid decades ago, is partly an old-fashioned private detective story about tracking down leads, interviewing relevant parties, and sticking notecards on a rolling cork board. (That last part is more time consuming than it looks, leading Jones and Ross to contemplate the very thin line between detective movies and stalker movies.) It’s intriguing and disheartening to uncover, along with Jones and Ross, the conflicting narratives about the genesis of “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing,” and the way certain parties elevated themselves while quietly minimizing the roles of women, especially women of color.
Watching “Seeking Mavis Beacon,” one might perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the stakes are extremely low. There’s no ticking clock and no criminals evading justice. It’s the search for a woman who apparently doesn’t even want to be in the public eye, for whatever reason, and it’s conducted by two people with no personal connection to Mavis Beacon beyond whatever they’ve projected onto a publicity photo for a computer program.
But what makes “Seeking Mavis Beacon” so captivating, enriching and illuminating is the way the phantom of the character deeply impacts Jones and Ross’s personal journeys. It can be no coincidence that they watch Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman” allegedly a hundred times; a groundbreaking drama about the search for a forgotten Black and queer actress in the golden age of Hollywood.
Like Dunye’s classic, what Jones and Ross are searching for is an untold history of people who look like them in an industry whose narrative is told almost exclusively by people who don’t. Their quest for deeper meaning in a figure the film calls “the Aunt Jemima of technology” is a search for the deeper meaning in their own careers and art. Finding the “real” Mavis Beacon might validate their quest. It might also be unnecessary, since their ability to undertake this quest at all only proves that Beacon made a real impact.
So it goes that the pleasures of watching Jones and Ross unlock pieces of the Mavis Beacon puzzle are secondary to the fascination, sometimes hopeful and sometimes frustrating, of watching them work. The question isn’t where Mavis Beacon is, the question is where her influence will continue to lead these two smart, funny, passionate and talented young people. The anguish of finding their headquarters squatted in while they searched for their long-lost hero. The gloom of Ross’s college interview, where we learn that making this documentary about why she’s pursuing a career in technology may actually have jeopardized her career in technology.
In “Seeking Mavis Beacon” the search for heroes, even where none technically exist, is a heroic act. The stakes aren’t life and death, but they’re life. Identity, history, a place to belong, the things that make our pursuits matter on a deeper level, whether they have an exciting “hook” or not. We may or may not find Mavis Beacon but we find two wonderful souls in Jones and Ross, so this journey is more than just worthwhile. It’s powerful and it’s a joy.
Neon will release “Seeking Mavis Beacon.”
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