Early last week, the South by Southwest festival in Austin announced the 132 feature films to be shown this year — including Jinn, which depicts the coming of age story of a Muslim, African American, foodie, social media-indulging woman who finds young love.
The film’s writer and director, Nijla Mu’min, is the first to acknowledge that the movie was based on her complex upbringing right here in the Bay Area. Born in Berkeley, raised between Hayward and Oakland, Mu’min is the latest filmmaker to rise out of the Bay’s water and make a splash on the silver screen.
And while 2018 is looking to be a banner year for Oakland in film — Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, and Carlos Lopez Estrada's Blindspotting, starring Daveed Diggs — Jinn is unlike any of them, the product of Mu'min's singular perspective. This past week I got a chance to pick her brain about premiering her first full-length feature film, and the path she blazed in order to get here.
Prior to last week’s SXSW announcement, Mu’min had a taste of the spotlight when Filmmaker Magazine listed her as one of the 25 new faces of independent film. An earlier film of hers, Deluge, received some attention and awards, but it was a later film, Dream, that was shown at numerous film festivals and eventually screened on Issa Rae’s film series, #ShortFilmSundays. She’s also worked behind the scenes, as she once served as a production assistant for Ava DuVernay on the set of Middle of Nowhere (DuVernay’s second feature film, before Selma).
Before that, she was rubbing shoulders with big industry names far before they were big industry names. As a kid, she attended summer camp at Oakland’s Mosswood Park with a young Ryan Coogler. And Mu’min’s first film, which she made while studying mass communications at UC Berkeley, was shot near Oakland’s Children’s Hospital and starred a young Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who viewers might recognize from The Get Down.
“I just got out there and did it!” Mu’min says. The film was a passion project, shot guerilla style. Mu’min, who has since attended Howard University and CalArts’ film programs but had no formal filmmaking experience at the time, says, “That was my foundation. I just got out there, and made my film. And that’s the way the Bay Area raised me.”
At the time, she was a budding writer. She had experience in journalism as the editor of Cal’s Onyx Express, and she was a performing poet who was involved with Poetry for the People. But she can trace the seeds of her passion for storytelling back to her prepubescent years. While attending elementary school in Hayward, at just 8 years old, she vividly remembers going to the principal’s office and protesting the fact the school didn’t have any activities acknowledging Black History Month.
Mu’min's parents separated when she was young, but both steeped her in the importance of her heritage. Her father, who was once a part of the Nation of Islam before converting to being a Sunni Muslim, made sure to immerse Mu’min in the religious community. Her mother, who was less into organized religion, made sure Mu’min was aware of what it meant to be a Black woman in America.
That experience, as an African American Muslim woman navigating society in search for her true identity, was the catalyst for Jinn, which stars Zoe Renee as a teenager named Summer. “It’s kind of pulled from my story, especially as a teenager. I felt conflicted about my identity. It continued as I went to college,” says Mu’min. “There’s these competing sides of my identity, and I wanted to be ok with that.... I think people relate to flawed complex characters, people who live one way in one world, and another way in another world."
Beyond the complexities of the on-screen story, there’s a number of behind the scenes complications Mu'min faced, given what some might call “identity politics of the film industry.” From being a woman seeking funding from organizations with men in positions of power, to simply finding a template for the unique kind of stories she wants to tell, Mu'min's path to completing Jinn hasn't always been smooth. And there have been some surprises along the way.
Despite the negative narrative spewed from the Oval Office demeaning Muslims in America, she has benefited. “I think the current political climate helped us,” Mu’min says. She uses her art a means of subverting and offering a counter narrative to the damaging depictions of her religion, and that’s something her supporters have stood behind. “One of our funders was like ‘let’s do it — we have to do it now!’ It’s so important to have art responding to the current climate,” says Mu’min.
But she’s also met some resistance from unexpected communities — like her own. She says that isn’t always easy to write complex stories as a Black filmmaker. “People want you to tell positive Black stories,” says Mu’min. “But we have to tell real stories, about real people. And real people might do some positive things, but they might do some things that aren’t so good.”
Mu’min’s drive and artistic ability has already earned her some early successes, with her talent increasingly recognized. Given what she's gleaned from her parents, community and film industry thus far, there will undoubtedly be more depictions of complex stories written by Mu’min to come.