Girlhood, Black girlhood specifically can be examined through a variety of different lens. From locations to characters, girlhood can look drastically different. And yet, when told correctly, these stories can be a tapestry for representation, identification, and understanding. With her debut feature film Jinn, director Nijla Mu’min examines Black girlhood from the perspective of a mother-daughter relationship.
Jinn centers around Summer (Zoe Renee), a bold and vivacious high school senior on the cusp of womanhood just as her mother Jade (Luke Cage’s Simone Missick) converts to Islam –effecively shattering Summer’s world as she knows it. Dorian Missick and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. also star in the film. Just before Mu’min won the SXSW Special Jury Recognition for Writing, we sat down to chat about her semi-biographical film, girlhood, and how cultures meld and clash with one another.
Mu’min’s upbringing and background helped her birth Jinn — it was a story that she’d been crafting all of her life. “I grew up in the Bay Area," she explained. "My father is Muslim, and he converted to Islam in the late 1960s in Oakland. When I was born, I was born into that community. My mother had converted to Islam when she married my father. I grew up going to the masjid, being immersed in that culture, and being around so many different Muslims and so many distinct personalities. The masjid that we went to was in this beautiful Victorian building with all these rooms and colors. I always knew that I wanted to tell a story that was centered in that community; in that space.”
As she stepped into her teen years, the way Mu’min viewed her identity began to shift and change, causing her to examine her faith in a new way. “My mother and father divorced when I was young, and my mother struggled with her faith," she remembered. “Once I started to become a teenager, I felt a tug of war with my identity. I was in a space where a lot of my friends weren't Muslim, and we were listening to music that was very explicit. I wanted to dress a certain way, and I wanted to proclaim my sexuality in a certain way like other girls were doing it. I just felt a conflict between the Muslim image that I knew and the values that were instilled in me from youth, and then also pop culture, sexuality, and the kind of cultural norms that were being introduced to me as a teenager. I knew that this story existed in me and I wanted to tell it in a coming-of-age film. Jinn is the many years of sitting with this identity and merging of these cultural and religious worlds and wanting to put it into a story of a Black girl. It’s not just a story for Muslims, but for Black girls to be able to see themselves."
L-R: Actress Simone Missick, director Nijla Mu'min, actress Zoe Renee and producer Avril Z. Speaks Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times
Though Islam is an intricate part of the fabric of Jinn, Mu'min does not center it in the movie, nor is it positioned as a gimmick for the audience. “I knew from the start that this film would be a mother-daughter drama, and that's what I wanted to make," she revealed. “I wanted to make a film about two women and their relationship. When you have a film that has Islam in it, just because of the time that we live in with the kind of hateful rhetoric that's coming from the current president, and the global situation around different countries where they practice Islam, you have to address the societal importance and the urgency there. So I did want to explore Jade having to come out at work as a Muslim, and what that means in a mainstream television environment. Historically there hasn't been a lot of women in the news atmosphere who have been able to really push against the standards —the standards related to image. Then with the Imam character (Hisham Tawfiq), I see him as a very complex character. I think a lot of the reasons why people are pushed away from this community is because they feel judged. It’s not the religion itself that's pushing people away; sometimes it's how people interpret that religion and how they come at people within that religion. I think that's why people have an estrangement to faith and religion. However, I didn't want that to be the center of the film."
While The Quad’s Zoe Renee is a marvel as Summer, Mu'min was aware that she needed a compelling actress to step into the role of Jade. She found her perfect fit in Simone Missick who connected with the role immediately. “She came on board through her husband, Dorian Missick, whom I had already cast in the film as a David," Mu'min said. “When I got on the phone with Simone, she just had a love for the story and a love for that character. She understood Jade deeply because Simone Missick is a very devout Christian, but her parents were Atheists. She actually converted to Christianity, so she knows the experience of walking through a phase and being immersed and just feeling love in a spirituality. Once I learned about her experiences with conversion, faith, her love of the story and the character, and wanting to just play a complex, flawed Black woman, I knew that she was right for it. She had the restraint. She has the emotionality to her performance that plays so well with Zoe Renee's performance."
Renee’s performance as Summer is powerful because she carries herself with such confidence and self-assuredness — traits that evaded many of us throughout high school. “The creation of that character came from several places," Mu'min shared. “Some aspects were definitely from me, but I'm actually shyer and reserved. There were some teen girls that I worked with as an acting school instructor. I worked with a lot of Black girls, and I just observed their behaviors and this whole thing of a performance of identity. I would see girls performing, especially on social media spaces, and being very sure of themselves, but also having a lot of insecurities as well, and not being that sure of themselves when they were by themselves. However, when they're around people, or when there was a way for them to show off — they're doing that. For Summer, it's a thing where she is performing outwardly, but she does have some self-doubt. When it comes to her sexuality, she's struggling with that also.”
She continued, “I think we often have coming-of-age films where it's about the awkwardness and being an awkward teenager, and I think that's amazing. But I think also there's a lot of teens, especially in their senior year, who know the world &mdash they know what they're doing. It's fascinating to me because there's so much more to learn, and I think about Summer, and I think that once she goes to college, she'll be a whole new person. There will be so much more realizations that she'll have to come to."
Mu'min was also extremely particular about how the film looked. The audience is not just expected to sit and observe Summer’s story — we are immersed fully into her world. “I have a background in photography and poetry,” she explained. “Getting those images in the script was really important as the framework for my Director of Photography Bruce Francis Cole to be able to render those images onscreen. The color scheme and the color palette were really important; we used a lot of pinks and magentas to represent this phase of girlhood. We also used a lot of greens and blues, especially around the masjid — warm colors, to invoke a sense of community and belonging. We started having darker silhouettes, shadows, and darkness to have an association with the whole jinn mythology, and as the characters fall more into their sexuality. The colors, the lighting, and the scarves were all very, very intentional to paint a world of Black girls and youth, but also a world where there are these tensions between this religious identity and this identity that Summer wants to take on.”
Jinn had its world debut on the heels of Ryan Coogler’s thunderous Black Panther and Ava DuVernay’s whimsical A Wrinkle in Time. The significance of this moment in cinema history is not lost on Mu'min. “It means so much to me right now because I feel like there's so much that is possible for us," she declared. “It’s still a struggle. As a Black filmmaker you still have to work twice as hard as other people, but I think just the possibility that we are expanding the world in cinema; that makes me feel so good. It makes me understand that there is a world for Jinn, for the centering of these characters, and that audiences will watch it. I think we're just at a really special time where the centering of our characters and our narratives are being given attention that ten years ago, or maybe even five years ago, was not possible. If I were trying to make this film ten years ago, it would really have been an uphill battle to get this type of story made, because a lot of the times people say there's no audience for this. But we've been screening here at South by Southwest with mixed audiences of all different colors —people clapping and engaging with the film. So we know that people as a whole want to see this film, not just Black audiences.”
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