In Islamic mythology, jinn are said to be supernatural creatures who live parallel to human beings, created from “smokeless fire” but capable of taking physical forms. In Nijla Mu’min’s film Jinn, Summer (Zoe Renee) is fascinated by these unseen spirits as she struggles with her mother’s decision to convert to Islam. As a Black teenage girl, Summer feels invisible in many ways too.
Mu’min, a Black Muslim American woman, is very aware of her film’s unique place in the white patriarchal world of Hollywood, where Islam is either ignored or portrayed as a monster to be conquered. I recently spoke with the director about Jinn, which won a jury prize at SXSW earlier this year, and why it was essential to tell Summer’s story with such care and precision.
Jinn is in many ways a radical film that confounds stereotypes about both Black Americans and American Muslims. Did you set out to tell a radical story?
I knew that telling a story about Black people and Black Muslims would inherently be a little subversive or radical, but it was a very human story to me. The characters were just people that I was crafting. That really was the process: just writing a story that was intimate, human, and specific, but [also] pulled on these different emotions that anyone can relate to.
How much of the specificity onscreen comes from your own experience?
A lot of my experiences are reflected in the story, but not always [directly]. I was born into Islam, so there was no choice about [what] religion I would be. My father was Muslim. My mom was Muslim. Everyone around me in [my] Bay Area community were [mostly African American] Muslims.
But I attended public schools and a lot of my friends were not Muslim. It was a little jarring. And that’s where Summer originates. Out of the girl that I was: very curious, inquisitive, and open, but also struggling with who I wanted to be and what was deemed spiritually, religiously, [and] personally okay. The film’s strong Black female friendship thread comes from my experience too. I touch on intolerance within that group [because] that was something I experienced—a lot of closed-mindedness toward Black Muslims.
I recently saw a play called An Ordinary Muslim that challenges how Western media portrays “typical” followers of Islam. Yet it is still centrally about straight non-Black men. Have you experienced a kind of limitation within the American Muslim community itself? Did that inform the film?
There are more and more visible African American Muslims making space, but we didn’t have that in the past. The mainstream image of the “ordinary” or “regular” Muslim was not an African American Muslim. Or if it was, it had to do with the Nation of Islam, but there are a lot of African American Muslims who are not in the Nation of Islam. There are orthodox Muslims, and that’s the community I know. I wanted to bring that into our understanding of “regular” Muslims. Islamophobia affects Muslims differently! As an African American woman, my experiences of racism and sexism are mixed in with Islamophobia.
Recent incidents of violence against Black Muslims have highlighted some of those tensions. Once some non-Black Muslims found out that recent victim of police shooting Stephon Clark was Muslim, they seemed more interested in talking about him. How do those intersections show up for Black Muslim girls in the United States?
Most of my friends in school were African American Christians, and I [often] felt like an outsider. The Christian tradition within the African American [community] is very deep—[from] when our ancestors were enslaved and Christianity was introduced to them to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a big part of the African American experience, and I didn’t always feel like I had that. It made me go inward, define my spirituality for myself, and not be very public with my religion.
Then there’s this bigger issue of just being a Black woman in the world—the racism, the harassment, [and] the physical violence you encounter just walking down the street. Then, add on speaking about Islam. Though I don’t wear hijab, [more] questions are added to whatever stereotypes people already have of me.
The hijab and hair plays a unique role in the lives of the Black women in the film.
When I was growing up there were so many women wearing scarves—so colorful and beautiful, with all these textures. My father would sell scarves at the masjid. I knew I wanted Jade’s [Simone Missick] scarf to be an expression of herself. Summer doesn’t know [whether] she wants to wear that every day.
For a long time, natural hair [was] stigmatized. We are just beginning to see Black women celebrated [for wearing] their natural hair. So I wanted to see Black women’s hairstyles as amazing, and I wanted to see Black women wearing hijab as beautiful. I wanted to honor the beauty of the choice and not keep going down the same path of “I’m wearing it and I don’t want to.” I’m not interested in that narrative of the oppressed woman.
You also challenge stereotypes through your approach to sex and relationships in Jinn.
There have been a lot of stereotypes [that] devalue Black girls and women’s sexuality. A lot of us don’t want to be seen as “loose” [or] as a “ho.” Slut-shaming is a big thing that happens to Black girls and girls of color. So the characters [are] trying to figure out who they are through this atmosphere.
At the beginning of Jinn, we see Islam from the perspective of Jade, who is newly enamored of it. We also see many Muslims who aren’t perfect—some slut-shame, some are unfaithful. It’s never as simple as heroes and villains.
Mainstream representations of Muslims have been extreme, like terrorists or this pious person who doesn’t do anything wrong. [Neither] of those are real, and I’m interested in real people. Yes, there are Muslims who are struggling, [but] that’s just the reality of the world we live in. I didn’t want to shy away from presenting flawed, complex people. We can only get to a true place when we [have] representation moving toward a real place, not a wish of who we want to be. I just want to get to a real place when thinking about Muslim characters.