One of the most influential Black women in technology
is a figment of our imagination.
Mavis Beacon was invented by the Co-Founder of Myspace to sell the world’s most popular typing software, but the real woman she was modeled after disappeared in 1995...
Seeking Mavis Beacon is a hybrid experimental documentary
that poses critical questions regarding anthropomorphization and the consumption of marginalized bodies in the tech industry,
while reimagining the legacy of a missing historical figure.
* 12 minute work sample:
Seeking Mavis Beacon is a hybrid-documentary that blends myth and memory to pursue the truth behind a well-loved icon in Black history: Mavis Beacon, the in-game guide for Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Against the fluorescent industrial landscape of West Oakland, we follow “e-girl investigators” Jazmin and Olivia, who try to find traces of Reneé L’Esperancé, the Haitian woman who modeled as Mavis Beacon for the software thirty years ago. This quest drives the narrative across three acts, or movements, that weave together reenactments, interviews, & verité recordings to reimagine the past, present, and future(s) or two women who share a body. The DIY detectives leverage their positionality as digital natives and queer spellcasters to recenter Reneé L’Esperancé’s voice and erect a statue in Silicon Valley paying tribute to this missing figure in tech history. Straddling levity and seriousness, truth and make-believe, this film functions as a healing salve to the underrepresented and erased, while considering critical questions regarding anthropomorphization, artificial intelligence, and the power of collective imagination.
The film opens with a quote from Cheryl Dunye’s seminal film The Watermelon Woman, “Sometimes you have to create your own history.” Just as the Watermelon Woman canonized a much needed Black historical figure who never existed, the first movement of this film is dedicated to creating the foundations of Mavis Beacon’s legacy. The software sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, and with its success came a kind of Mandela effect. Many believe they’ve seen Mavis Beacon on daytime television or winning typing competitions, and in this movement, we embrace this phenomenon as a prompt for further imagination. Black storytellers, technologists, and cultural icons are invited to fill in the blanks of her personal life and career. Integrating interviews and reenactments that mimic educational films, news broadcasts, viral videos, and archival clips, we begin to appreciate Mavis Beacon’s global impact.
Filmmakers like Ava Duvernay and Terence Nance treat Mavis Beacon as a muse from director’s chairs in film studio lots. Theorists like Legacy Russell and bell hooks fabricate academic citations of the mythological typist within real archives. Celebrities like Megan Thee Stallion and Naomi Osaka idolize the inspirational figure in heartfelt acceptance speeches. Icons in their own right like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey accolade the Mavis Beacon for breaking glass ceilings from their own luxury estates. We see her character take shape in spaces beyond the computer screen- immortalized in postage stamps, statues, textbooks, and rap lyrics. This whimsical archive is synthesized by theorist and internet community-academic Mandy Harris Williams in the format of a biographical text about Mavis Beacon- a book Jazmin and Olivia discover during the investigation. This Movement provides a landscape of levity for Black co-conspirators to project ourselves into the past while reclaiming this beloved character from a racialized role of servitude.
Descending from the collective imagination, the second movement unpacks the reality behind Mavis Beacon’s problematic conception in Silicon Valley and the disappearance of Renée L’Espérance. As the production crew turns off lights and remove mics, interview subjects wonder out loud, “…but what really happened to her?” This question is the catalyst for the investigation, teleporting the audience into West Oakland through the open roof of a rundown convertible driven by Jazmin with Olivia sitting shotgun. Earnest pop synths from the late Sophies’ instrumental “It’s Okay to Cry” underscore a composite of voicemails from the Seeking Mavis Beacon hotline. As they post missing persons fliers, wheat pastes, and billboards with Reneé’s face, we begin to understand that, regardless of being a fictional character, Mavis Beacon still matters to many people.
But what does it mean to have a Black woman in the perpetual role of digital servitude? In this movement, familiar interview subjects, tipsters, and those complicit in creating Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing respond to ethical questions of the first anthropomorphized A.I. being in the likeness of a Haitian woman. We draw similarities between the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks’ body by the medical field and Mavis Beacon’s market success. We trace the identities of the four Black women who modeled for the software after L’Espérance. We acknowledge how the character of Mavis became a blueprint for Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and all modern utilitarian digital assistants programmed to present as women. We wonder why the software devolved from 8-Bit animations of Black hands typing on-screen to hyper-realistic renderings of white hands and question what that shift in representation implies. As the search for Renée L’Espérance expands beyond US borders, as does our understanding of Mavis Beacon’s cultural significance.
The second half of the second movement picks up speed as the search for Reneé L’Esperancé gains traction. Concrete leads pour in through the hotline, taking us far beyond Oakland to find answers. Jazmin and Olivia make contact with the two living developers behind Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, but the creators’ contradictory testimonies further complicate the search. For the first time, they truly confront the weight of trying to find a Black woman who’s been missing for more than 25 years. What begins as a playful exercise, spirals into an existential reckoning with representation, and what it means to look for someone who (perhaps decidedly) can’t be found. Buoyed by their budding intergenerational friendship, and rooting into their intuitions, our investigators utilize ancestral rituals of magic, community support, and ingenuity online to locate Renée L’Espérance.
The third Movement focuses on finding Renée L’Espérance, amplifying her voice in the larger narrative, and paying tribute. After years of thinking nonstop about who Mavis Beacon could be, the duo finally meet her maker. Jazmin and Olivia must reckon with the most profound fangirl moment of their lives, while also addressing the fact that they’ve (potentially) disturbed their favorite’s peace. With trust, Renée lets us into her world, and fills in the blanks about the life she lived before and beyond Mavis Beacon. For the first time on the record, we have an opportunity to not only appreciate Renée L’Espérance as a complex being, but give her her flowers.
The film concludes where it all began- Silicon Valley. Floating above the convertible winding top down on the poppy-lined Highway 12 blasting hyphy music. Atop “Bliss” Hill, the location where the famous Windows XP desktop photo was taken, a small crowd gathers. Jazmin, Olivia, Reneé L’Espérance, and the four other women who modeled as Mavis Beacon are all present. Everyone who participated in collectively imagining her backstory is also there wearing their Sunday best. Together, they take in the view of a 15-foot, larger-than-life impressionistic statue of Mavis Beacon. In her proud bronzed face, we can see the many Mavis Beacon’s, but also all of the other erased, under-appreciated, and unseen Black women who are worth fighting for.
“We are in an imagination battle...
I often feel I am trapped inside someone else's imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”
― adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy
Through reenactments, interviews, &
verité recordings, Seeking Mavis Beacon explores the past, present, and future(s)
of two women who share a body, while considering critical questions about anthropomorphization, artificial intelligence, & autonomy.
This neon noir is rooted in Oakland, and like a narrator, the city contextualizes the poetics and plight of the pandemic, racial unrest, gentrification fueled by the tech sector, and this moment ripe with revolutionary possibility.
The search takes us to Los Angeles, New York, and ultimately Haiti.
We want this film to function as a healing salve for the underserved;
approaching difficult themes with a simultaneous
sense of levity and seriousness.
Jazmin Jones ᐧ Director
Jazmin Jones is a Brooklyn-based, Bay Area-raised filmmaker and collective organizer. She is a co-founder of BUFU: By Us For Us, a decentralized documentary collective centering solidarity amongst Us, co-creating experimental models of organizing with You. A 2021 Sundance Uprise fellow, Jazmin and her work have been featured by Vice, MoMA, SFMoMANew Museum, Seattle Museum and Brooklyn Museum.
Guetty Felin ᐧ Producer
Guetty Felin is an award-winning independent filmmaker, producer, teacher, and film curator. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and raised in New York, she holds an MFA from the University of Paris School of Cinema. Her magical realist feature, Ayiti Mon Amour, was Haiti’s first film eligible for an Oscar.
Olivia Ross ᐧ Associate Producer
Olivia Ross is a 19 year old video artist, poet, theorist and doula from New York City. Her work is inspired by the fantasies and anxieties of video transmission; immersion, absorption, surveillance, and control. An alum of the School for Poetic Computation, her work has been featured by P.P.O.W Gallery, Transfer Gallery, Bitch Media, Refinery 29, i-D UK, and i-D Italy.
Charlotte Cook ᐧ Executive Producer
Charlotte Cook is a curator, writer and producer. Prior to Field of Vision, she was the Director of Programming at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival. She has also worked with BBC Storyville, the Channel 4 BritDoc Foundation’s Puma Creative Catalyst Fund and the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where she curated the strand Conflict | Reportage.