Nijla Mu’min and I are on the phone talking about rep sweats.
“Have you heard of the NPR podcast Code Switch?” I ask her.
“Yes, I have!” she answers brightly.
We then shifted to the subject of Margaret Cho’s notoriously short-lived 1994 sitcom All-American Girl, the first prime time television show to feature an Asian American cast. The show was cancelled after one season due in no small part to criticism from prominent Asian critics. Occasional Code Switch podcast host Kat Chow describes the rep(resentation) sweats as: “the feeling of anxiety that can come with watching TV shows starring people who look like you, especially when people who look like you tend not to get a lot of screen time.”
Did Mu’min get the rep sweats while writing Jinn, her feature length directorial debut? “I wasn’t really thinking about representational politics,” she says. “I was thinking about my characters—Summer (Zoe Renee), Jade (Simone Missick), Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). I was focused on their stories, not mine.”
Jinn follows its protagonist Summer through a tumultuous period in her young life. As she juggles her passion dancing with applying to colleges, maintaining friendships, and experimenting with sex and romance, she is pushed to navigate a fraught terrain of identity politics. Summer is African American and, after moving to a new town, her mother dives deep into the local Muslim community. Pulled between a devout crush, an ignorant friend, the unfeeling matrix of social media, and her mother’s influence, Summer fights to chart her own course through an increasingly turbulent world for girls who look like her.
MovieMaker was able to sit down with Mu’min to discuss how Jinn came to be.
Ryan Coleman, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): When did you start writing Jinn and what sparked you to write it?
Nijla Mu’min (NM): I started writing the script for Jinn over the summer of 2015. It was a story that was many years in the making, and took even longer to develop. As a young girl, I was raised in a Muslim community in the Bay Area. I really felt such a love for that community, but becoming a teenager, questioning my identity, and being confused, I found that I wanted to define what my life was for myself. I never saw that life represented in cinema.
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a filmmaker until I was in college. I did have a background in writing poetry and short stories when I was younger but didn’t know I’d end up here. When I became a filmmaker, and learned how to write screenplays, this was one of the first stories I wanted to tell. However, it didn’t end up being until 2015 that I wrote the script for this particular iteration of the story.
MM: When it comes to Summer’s hesitation at first regarding Islam, is that a generational thing, or is she uniquely responding to the times we’re living in?
NM: I think that there’s a lot of ignorance, hatred and general unwillingness to learn about different things. I think this is especially true in regards to Islam because of how it’s been portrayed for so many years. This portrayal in the media impacts so many people, especially teenagers who, in this age of over-information, have access to so much through social media. Even in this environment of constant knowledge, it’s still so easy to be grossly misinformed. I wanted to address that in Summer’s character. The main thing she knows about Islam is about oppression, the feeling that women are not able to be free—something we have been hearing for many years. It’s generational but it’s also a result of the power structures at play in this country. These institutions disperse information that dehumanizes people. They place people into categories, and put all of their effort into dividing people. That’s what Summer is able to overcome. She is eventually able to realize that this is a world she can feel part of. To see her actually enjoying it and really finding herself able to be at peace within it, that’s something that I wanted to show. I wanted to bring people away from these very limiting stereotypes.
MM: Characters from marginalized identity groups often get short representation shrift in film—their narratives centering around suffering or sacrifice. How and why did you choose not to structure Jinn that way?
NM: As a writer, I really wanted to capture what it means to be a teenager today, which was a little different from how it was for me growing up. I wanted to paint a picture of what freedom is for these black girls. They’re exploring their identities, their sexuality, and their freedom through dress. When I was a teenager, if someone wore pink dye in their hair they would be teased for it. If they were bisexual, they might have been really torn apart about that. I didn’t want to make a movie about despair. Though I think movies about these themes are credible, I didn’t want a movie about black people struggling through life. I love a lot of movies where struggle is a main feature of the narrative for black characters, but I felt like it had no place in this movie. When we filmed, I knew I wanted to paint a world that was painful, yes, but also fun, hopeful, and full of color. MM
Jinn opened in theaters and on demand November 16, 2018, courtesy of Orion Classics. All images courtesy of Orion Classics.