Learning to Play like a Girl
Redemption is the name of the game in Jesse Vaughan’s feature film debut, Juwanna Mann, in which an egocentric, talented professional basketball player, Jamal Jeffries (Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr.), learns a much-needed lesson about sportsmanship and teamwork after his rowdy behavior gets him kicked out of the NBA. You don’t have to be a fan of professional basketball to notice that Jamal is based on the obnoxious behavior of a few real-life stars. And though the film doesn’t specifically address the race dynamics surrounding this behavior and its reception, it does suggest that at least some of the problem has to do with the ways that sexuality, class, and race remain sources of anxiety for the culture at large.
Indeed, the film plays on such anxiety in the opening scene. During an important game, Jamal engages in an argument with his coach, and to express his frustration, he takes off his basketball jersey and throws it. Then, in response to the audience’s loud disapproval, Jamal jumps onto the courtside press table, rips off his shorts to reveal his jock-strapped penis, and shakes it at the disgusted crowd. He doesn’t stop there: he proceeds to rip off the jock and fling it at his tormentors. It lands, quite symbolically, on some guy’s hot dog. Horrified by the incident, the NBA suspends Jamal from the league “indefinitely.”
Desperate to continue playing basketball—because, as he tells his agent (Kevin Pollak), it’s “the only thing I know how to do!”—Jamal devises a plan to pose as a woman and try out for the North Carolina Banshees, a team on the women’s basketball league. He is, of course, hired immediately. Viola! Juwanna Mann is born.
Not surprisingly, the film never explores the reasons why Jamal feels his career options are so limited, as to do so would shift the focus from his individual acting out to systemic problems. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that Jamal is kicked out of the NBA because of inability to control his aggression and hypermasculinity (which has to do with his sexuality). In this way, Juwanna Mann points to social limits imposed on black men, particularly in the public arena of sports and physical prowess.
At the same time, this man-in-drag premise has been used many times in films, without reference to professional sports or race politics per se: Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Nuns on the Run (1990), and Sorority Boys (2002) come to mind. Typically, the sexual tensions between these men in drag and characters around them are deflected by letting the audience in on the ruse. This insider knowledge creates much of the humor: it’s much easier for the audience to laugh when we know who’s who, and the joke is on the characters in the film, not us.
In Juwanna Mann, we see these tensions played out in Juwanna/Jamal’s growing attraction to Michelle (Vivica A. Fox), the Banshees’ star player. As is usual in the formula, this attraction extends “beyond” the physical, as the two engage in “girl talk,” exchanging advice about men and relationships. Juwanna/Jamal is on hand to witness Michelle’s pain when she discovers her boyfriend Romeo’s (Ginuwine) infidelity. All this intimacy looks “lesbian” to us, because we know Jamal’s physical attraction, even if Michelle misses it. At the same time, we know it’s “safely” heterosexual, when Juwanna/Jamal rubs Michelle’s weary shoulders while trying to hide his excitement.
The other relationship that causes problems is the romantic attention Juwanna receives from Puff Smokey Smoke (Tommy Davidson), a WNBA groupie who develops the hots for her/him. This is another common element in drag comedies, where the man in drag finds himself the object of another man’s desire. While this particular tactic is designed to create anxiety over the men in drag being “found out,” it also flirts with the homoerotic tension. Even though the audience is well aware that Puff’s attraction to Juwanna is a case of mistaken identity, that doesn’t change the fact that we are watching a man hit on another man. Jamal deals with Puff’s amorous advances in no uncertain terms; s/he kicks him in the balls, shoves him away, throws him across the room, etc.
While this aggression reassures the audience of Jamal’s straightness, it makes comedy out of homophobia. It helps that Puff’s ghetto-fabulous persona (gold and silver teeth, flashy clothing, and gold chains) and cheesy pick-up lines (“You are one tall glass of water! And I’m telling you straight up: I’m thirsty”), makes him suspect as a straight masculine ideal. If anything, the image of his small, lean frame next to Jamal’s/Juwanna’s tall, muscular physique, makes him look like the feminine one.
Like its men-in-drag predecessors, Juwanna Mann doesn’t critique gender stereotypes, so much as it uses them to espouse a morality lesson—which, in this case, has to do with being unselfish and cooperating with others. Jamal’s lesson is made clear by the end of the film, when he is forced to make a decision between staying true to his women teammates and taking advantage of an opportunity to get back in the NBA. When he makes the right choice, he’s rewarded by getting to be a man again. Unsurprisingly, the way this all works out makes the women look more like stereotypical caretakers and moral teachers, instead of serious athletes.