Freedom. It’s a word that epitomizes our teenage years – a time that seems endless and glorious. However, it’s also a period where we often feel confined — boxed in as we rebel against our parents’ rules and traditions while trying to step into our own identities. Writer-director (and Shadow and Act contributor) Nijla Mu'min’s debut feature Jinn paints a picture of a teen we don’t often see in film. Jinn tells the story of a Black girl who wears her freedom and individuality like a coat of armor, while those around her — including her mother, are still trying to grapple with who they are.
Summer (portrayed by The Quad’s Zoe Renee) is a carefree high school senior who embraces girlhood full throttle. A dancer with her sights set on securing admission to California Institute of the Arts, Summer spends her days hanging with her homegirls, flirting with anyone who catches her eye, dyeing her lush fro a variety of colors, and chomping down on pepperoni pizza and churros. Her relatively stress-free life is upended when her mother Jade (portrayed by Luke Cage's Simone Missick) decides to convert to Islam.
Though this is mostly Summer’s story, Mu'min also turns her lens on Jade. A prominent meteorologist on a network channel, Jade's life seems to be in order professionally, but her desire for something more profound leads her to Islam. While Summer is fearless — diving headfirst into exploring her sexuality, identity, friendships, and even Islam, Jade is wary and fearful. Missick brings a warmth, cautiousness, and strength to the role, even when Jade berates her daughter for not being who she wants her to be. It was intriguing to watch the relationship between Jade and Summer crackle and fade between friendship and guardianship. The mother-daughter relationship is central here, as we watch two very different women come to terms with who they are and who they are desperate to become. This juxtaposition was one of the most profound aspects Jinn. After all, our relationships with our mothers, though imperfect are often deeply embedded in who we are as Black women.
Drawing from her own experiences growing up near Oakland, Mu'min shows the richness and beauty of Islam through the stunning mosques, the intricate passages of the Qur’an, and the physical poetry of prayers. And yet, she is careful not to render the religion, nor it’s culture into an untouchable perfect thing. When Summer is publically shamed by her Imam (portrayed by Hisham Tawfiq) for posting some risqué photos on social media, she is righteously defended by some unexpected allies. In contrast, Mu'min examines Islamophobia which remains prevalent in our society. From microaggressions that Summer experiences at her school to the overt hostility that Jade encounters at work, Jinn examines how Americans continue to approach the Islamic faith with suspicion and hatred.
Cast in a flurry of pastel colors, Mu'min parses out the complexities of teenhood in Jinn. Summer is no angel. Defiant, rebellious and even annoying at times, she defines herself, as a jinn — an Islamic being made of smokeless flame who has complete free will. However, as we do in our teenager years, Summer fails to consider how others might be affected by her actions. As Jade becomes more grounded in her faith – dragging Summer along for the ride, the teen feels stifled and tempted to rebel especially when she catches the eye of Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) a fellow Muslim who attends her school. Though her parents — including her father (Dorian Missick) seem caught up in their own worlds, Summer is determined to live her truth, leaning into her desires; as a Muslim or otherwise.
Jinn works because it’s much more intricate than a typical coming-of-age tale. Through Summer and Jade’s behavior, Mu'min looks closely at the constraints of our teen years as well as parenthood, without erasing the humanity of the characters who wear those labels. More than anything the film shines because it isn’t about the trauma or pain that Black women experience. Jinn is about identity, those beautiful, carefree days of youth, and how in a split second, one thing that is so deeply important to us can be replaced with something else.
Jinn premiered Sunday, March 11, 2018 at SXSW.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami