Miss Virginia is the type of story we need more of in Hollywood – stories of the underdog, stories of ordinary heroes doing extraordinary things, stories that echo ‘power to the people’, but crucially, stories focussed around people of colour.
That’s not to suggest that other stories don’t have merit, but when Hollywood operates by the same formulaic strategies, it only reinforces the stereotypical belief that POC stories lack value – their stories relegated, forgotten, and erased. Director R.J Daniel Hanna aims to reverse that trend with Miss Virginia – the true story of Virginia Walden who sparked a movement to ensure kids from low-income households had the right to a decent education, taking that battle right to the political heart of government.
In playing the titular role of Virginia Walden, Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) brings a compelling and captivating magnetism to the film. She’s no stranger to that weighted responsibility. There will be ample comparisons between this role and her depiction as Shirley Chisholm in Mrs America, embodying that ‘unbought and unbossed’ spirit in taking down her political opponents and their double standards. Decades later (figuratively speaking), the synergy of being a ‘voice for the voiceless’ is continued.
For his feature-length debut, Hanna brings that underdog spirit centre stage, drawing attention to the grassroots activism and Virginia’s determined purpose to move ‘heaven and Earth’ for her son’s education. And to no surprise, the journey exposes deep-rooted elements of corruption, entrenchment, and performative allyship within the political arena. But the disenfranchised nature of politics and its representation feels as relevant today amid the uproar and tumultuous disruption that is 2020. But through Uzo, the notable shade is evident when it embarrassingly depicts how it took one citizen to sort out policies politicians are elected in power for.
It is a pity that the film’s structure doesn’t match the power and brilliance Uzo brings to the role. Miss Virginia falls victim to the staple, biopic tropes with each passing minute of its runtime, feeling more like a throwback tribute from the 2000s. Hanna’s direction is solid and competent yet brings nothing new to the table, more focussed on hitting every technical, clichéd, and dramatic beat than reinventing a conventional and overused wheel. And ultimately, because of its ‘paint by the numbers’ limitations, it takes the shine away from the necessary purpose of the film – the trailblazing story of Virginia Walden.
It understands the logic behind her struggles; the frustration at being denied bank loans to pay for school tuition or and working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. But the film’s lack of exploration refuses to delve much into her as a personality outside of it. Her hopes, ambitions, even her existence are channelled to the advances of the movement and keeping her son off the streets. The mother and son (played by Niles Fitch) dynamic are reduced to a basic art form of ‘troubled son’ and ‘tough mother’. The supporting characters are on-screen avatars either existing for the movement or to be its opposition like an established cartoon villain. And while yes, any movements need support from everyone to sustain its momentum, but Matthew Modine’s Congressman Cliff Williams basks in that white saviour aura, especially in the film’s climax when he has the deciding legislative vote.
These predictable encounters are surface-level depictions in a film that could have made a real statement about how systemic oppression and barriers have been disadvantaging young children from low-income households. But it’s not interested in magnifying its scope. It’s not interested in exploring the depth or impact that’s felt amongst communities. It’s not interested in articulating the reasons why kids fall between the cracks within society. But like a missed opportunity, a lot of its intentions (especially any political conversations it infers) are reliant on outdated and watered-down mechanics. And instead of a complex and nuanced tale, we end up with a film that covers the basics, conveniently substituting its plot, tone, and cultural baggage for a comfortable, lighthearted gaze that paints a ‘happy ever after’ reality that is far from the truth.
Miss Virginia ultimately hinges on the resilience behind Uzo Aduba, making most of the role with a commanding performance. It’s felt in every speech directed at policymakers, drenched in empowerment that pulls you in with an undeniable, emotional truth that makes you pause and listen. Uzo does the best she can with the limited material, but in terms of the film’s message and her own sense of conviction, you believe every word she says – and in turn, you believe in her.
On its strongest axis, Miss Virginia is an inspirational tale that has every reason to be told but opts for safety and caution instead of being wholly committed in the activism ingrained in its plot. Its potential could have been so much more had it removed its Hollywood tinted glasses, but Uzo’s performance and the continued rise of her stardom is the overall blessing.
Dir: R.J. Daniel Hanna
Scr: Erin O’Connor
Cast: Uzo Aduba, Niles Fitch, Aunjanue Ellis, Matthew Modine, Amirah Vann, Vanessa Williams
Prd: Maurice Black, Virginia Walden Ford, Erin O’Connor, Stacey Parks & Rob Pfaltzgraff
DOP: Nancy Schreiber
Music: Laura Karpman
Runtime: 102 minutes
Miss Virginia is released October 2nd.