5640When I was a young girl, a female friend at summer camp asked me if I was gay. I giggled, shyly. I didn’t know how else to respond, but to say no. I had not known myself to be gay. She told me it was “weird” that I didn’t like any of the boys at summer camp. I knew I just didn’t like them. I knew I did like boys, but I hadn’t quite decided if I liked girls as well. I was more interested in going swimming. Her question made me aware of myself in a way I hadn’t been before. I was aware of the ways I’d be seen. I was aware, at the time, that to be a black girl meant liking black boys, and if you didn’t, something might be weird, or wrong.

Those feelings- of knowing and not knowing, of trying to figure it out, of wanting to exist-  washed over me as I watched Barry Jenkins’ film, Moonlight, based on the play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Told in three chapters, with three actors playing the lead character at different points in his life, the film follows a young man, Chiron, trying to make sense of his identity and sexuality while growing up in inner city Miami, a place where palm trees, rolling tides, and sleek low-riders form a melange of texture.

In one scene, Juan (a stellar Mahershala Ali), a neighborhood drug dealer, teaches young Chiron how to swim. Water envelops the lens and these two men transcend any prior label placed upon them. They are free, floating in a body of water where man-made stigma and hatred have no place. This, in Barry’s words, is a baptism. A washing, a renewal.

But the freedom of the water cannot penetrate the hard codes of manhood that little boys act out to assert themselves, some of them done in fun, while others are done to harm. What are the boundaries to being a man, and being a black man? When is one’s particular manhood not allowed? In one scene, little black boys wrestle and roll over each other in laughter, but Chiron is targeted for not being “hard.” What makes one hard?

In the absence of a stable parent, Chiron finds space and nourishment in the home of Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), while his mother, played with a tragic intensity by Naomie Harris, sinks deeper into an addiction to crack cocaine. Under a magenta light, she screams at young Chiron, her eyes bulging, and body wrecked by the drug. But in so many scenes, there’s still a deep, warring affection in her eyes, for him. There’s a battle inside of her- the battle against an addiction and the love for a son.

I was struck by the seamlessness in mannerisms and demeanor that each actor portraying Chiron, shared. The teenage Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders, carries the quiet rage of Alex Hibbert in his eyes and in his body. He moves like someone keenly aware that they are being watched, and targeted. He is not one with himself, because he cannot be and it pained me to see this. It pained me to see a scene in which a fellow classmate taunted Chiron as he walked home. It pained me to feel the confusion and danger he felt while hiding out in a gated staircase at school to avoid further harm. It pains me that anyone would not see this film because it’s about a black person wanting to be free.

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In a later scene, Chiron sits on the beach with teenage friend Kevin, and sand between his fingers. Smiles force their way through, and a calm comes over. Like his swimming lesson with Juan, there is no judgement in the water, and in the wind. These are freeing forces that cover all, that submerge all. I’ve always felt most free in water. In a pool, even before I knew how to swim. And when I did, I threw myself into oceans that could so easily push me back out. 

When we meet older Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) in the latter portion of the film, he’s buffer, with a gold grill, riding in a similar car to the one Juan drove. His muscular body is a type of armor, his eyes pulsing with the same intensity, while his words are still few. A meeting with an older Kevin (Andre Holland) brings back both old wounds, and the ability to be free once more- to taste it (literally, as they meet in a diner), to think about, to stare at the water. I felt the intimacy and vulnerability between these two black men in my own body. There was something in their eyes, something that was crushed in their youth, but now, the tide washed over, and it’s time to start again.

moonlight

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269547_10100494988895093_3808281_nMy mother often jokes that I should’ve become a dermatologist. I could make a living diagnosing skin conditions and easing people’s uncertainties. I’d have a stable life, money, and security. I usually laugh at my mother’s humor, knowing she doesn’t really mean it.

There are times, though, when I begin to doubt the journey that I’m on because I am not sure where it’s leading. I have family, friends and colleagues who believe in me, who tell me that my future is so bright, and that I’ll be the next (insert successful black filmmaker here), and while I appreciate their predictions and praise, it gets really hard sometimes.

It’s hard because sometimes, I’m reeling from rejection, but I’m fighting to keep going. The rejection from an actor I really liked and have followed for years, who turns down my script. The rejection from a grant organization whose application I worked on for a month, and whose funds would’ve enabled my film to go into production. The subtle disregard of unanswered emails to urgent questions, and the disappearances of important people who initially showed so much interest in the project. Meetings and pitching and emailing that amount to waiting and more questions that don’t get answered. That’s filmmaking.

There’s no roadmap here.

I had a plan. In June, I moved from New York City back to California, to work on my first feature film, Jinn, which I plan to shoot here. It was time to tell my story- a story of exploration, black girlhood, of family, of Islam, identity, first love, and laughter. Spurred by the massive success of our Kickstarter campaign – which showed us just how much people want to see this film- I aimed to jump right into the process of finding my cast, and preparing to shoot my film this summer, as we continued to solicit additional funds for the film. I’ve never waited for permission to tell the stories that were important to me. I found a way, with low budgets, talented, dedicated cast and crew, and love emanating from my soul. Jinn would be no different.

But it was. For one, it’s a feature film. It’s a feature film with an ensemble cast and more than ten locations, and dancing, and color, and text messages on the screen, and different hairstyles, all things that take time and money to successfully capture and execute. Even in its micro-budget framework, we needed more money. And that’s what my summer became- a paper chase in which I learned, and worried, and cried, and smiled.

Three months later, I am back home in the Bay Area, writing a TV pilot, preparing to shoot Jinn, and waiting to hear from two more grants that may decide the fate for shooting the film this fall. I keep telling myself that whatever happens, I’ll keep fighting on. No grant will determine the trajectory of my career or life, but I’d lie if I said it wouldn’t hurt if I were rejected, because it would.

I put my all into my writing, and into my filmmaking. I put my all into the process of applying to those grants and making a case for why my film deserves those funds. Because it does.

There’s no 1-2-3 “how-to” guide to getting an independent film made. Sometimes, I kinda wish there were. Filmmaking is a privilege I’m so grateful to have. Nothing came easy, and it still doesn’t. Facebook statuses about successes and accomplishments are preceded by major disappointments. I often don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I’ve put in so much work that I know something is gonna pop off. And it may not be right now, it may not be next month, or even in three months, but I know, without a doubt, that this film is going to be made, with the help and support of people who want to bring it to life. InshAllah. 

I am so grateful for the people in my life and the people I don’t know who have supported this process, who’ve seen me at my lowest and have provided me with the warmth and wisdom to keep going. I am so grateful to the talented actor I talked to on the phone yesterday who loved my script, the Executive who gave the script a good rating on the Black List, the festivals who provide platforms and communal spaces for filmmakers of color to showcase their work, my producers who offer such clear insight and strategies for moving forward, and the actors who came to my audition and performed their hearts out. I am also grateful to have the opportunity to pitch and present my film to people I admire, even if some of them are not interested. These are the moments, the experiences, and people that make this work exciting, and one-of-a kind.

Even with all the heartache and uncertainty, I could never leave it to become a dermatologist.

 

I wrote this poem in 2006. police aren’t the only ones who profile.

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Apology to the man at the KFC/Taco Bell Drive Through

I gaze at your car in front of mine

 

I’m thinking bout what I want to order

Bean burrito or chicken taco?

Seven layer burrito?

Naw/ cuz sometimes the cheese be too cold

I settle on a bean burrito

 

Then you roll down your window

Mouth something I don’t understand

I presume you are trying to holla

You know

spit some game

so I avert my eyes

shrung my shoulders/ say: “It’s Okay. I have a boyfriend” through my windshield

 

You continue to talk

I continue to ignore

You finally open the car door/ yell:

“Ay! They only got chicken thighs and legs left. No taco Bell or nothing else. Can you back up so can get out?!”

 

I absorb the information like a reluctant sponge

I was wrong

You didn’t want my number

 

I confused your white tee with the man who called me

a Little Red Riding Hood Bitch/when I didn’t give him my digits on Telegraph

 

I confuse your car with the team of men in the Buick last May/ who followed my white cutlass

after I said I didn’t want to talk to them/ raced me like we were in a NASCAR championship

I won

 

I confused your indecipherable words with ones like “Ay Girl, Can I be yo’ friend?”

with the whistles/ the awkward gas station encounters

with the time in Hilltop mall when I was cornered by a group of teenagers who want my number/ I silently smile/ walk away/ followed by their complements of “She aint that cute anyway”

 

But these men aren’t you

you just wanted to eat/ not holla

so

to you at the KFC/TACO Bell Drive Through

I apologize

Next time I will

listen

 

You are driving in a car that used to be white

you are sending text messages to friends that never respond

you are dancing in ripped panties

you are eating water

you are depositing $30 checks that dissolve

a day later

you are fantasizing about rapper-singers named Mac Wilds

and choreographing dance routines in the dark

 

You are torn lilac lonely

picking up flowers on the ground

you are going on dates and hoping the dude pays

you are digging down deep into emails never responded to

you are walking into restaurants with big hair and big hopes asking for jobs

you don’t get

you are wearing sandals in January

and looking more like your mother

 

You are cloudy in the mind, but mostly in the heart

you are living in an apartment with no furniture

missing halal links and men with beards

 

You are a shrine of worry,

golden eye shadow and

2 MFA degrees away from starvation

Wednesday came and no word on the job

you are trying to make a film on a budget of hope

 

You are getting your once-white car washed

but can’t afford to tip

you can count on one hand how many times it rained in LA this winter

you are looking at pictures of people’s babies on Facebook and mourning maternity in your situation

A frozen lasagna will fill you up, right?

 

You are singing

you are understanding why groupies wait outside dressing rooms in black mini-skirts and drug dealers guard cement,

you are wondering what kind of drug dealer you’d be,

probably the kind that wears feathers

why 24-year old women date 69-year old men with jobs

you are wondering why you didn’t accept the offer of the 58-year old dreadlocked film critic who wanted to date you

 

You are crying because you probably won’t be able to attend your line sister’s baby shower

and what if the all reservoirs run out of water?

You are living in a drought

© Nijla Mumin

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I was brought up in a kitchen

with a towel around my neck

and a hot comb hissing

 

I was born

half past a yellow bone

with fine tooth combs that broke upon third use

 

I was born with beadies at the back of my neck

brushed quickly in the morning

 

I was born South Carolina dry

something like twine and cotton

in my grandmother’s hands

 

I was taught with beeswax and Pro style gel stored in my sister’s backpack

 

I was born natural

 

permed for one summer

thick strands strung out on chlorine

in Oakland swimming pools

crying for the thick to come back

 

and it did

in between press and curls sweating out

and the boys who liked the long-haired girls

 

I was born with people in my hair

in my ear

wishing it shine,

wishing it sheen and straight

I was born wirey-hot headed dirty brown-haired girl

and brittle without oil

twisted in the morning

and touched by white women for luck

 

I was born light and nappy

I was born not knowing this hair

and handing it to someone else

 

I was born with afro puffs

and camp counselors who said they were ugly

 

I was born Louisiana dry spice

and daddy’s Nature’s Blessings to soften my edges

 

I was born with bad ends and rope twists

I was born with a blow dryer busting on the floor

 

I was born of a silver-haired Virgo and a balding Gemini in a suit

and hair that wouldn’t obey a rubber band

 

I am in the bathroom combing for hours in heat

a thick universe of coils that grows from me and down my back

laughing

 

I was born with Lusters pink lotion and the burn of spray on my scalp

I was born with straight parts down the middle

and beads with foil on my braids

 

I was born natural

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Oscar Grant’s daughter, Tatiana. (photo credit: Nijla Mu’min. Taken at the Oscar Grant Vigil in early 2010 at Fruitvale Bart Station.)

“He didn’t like to be left alone.”

Oscar Grant’s mother Wanda, played superbly by Octavia Spencer, delivers this line in one of the most compelling scenes in the film. It is a detail, that when considered in the context of the story, hits us on all sides, and most importantly, in the heart. Details like these penetrate the divisive rhetoric framing Oscar Grant as a saint or a criminal. Instead, he is a son who didn’t want to be left alone by his mother, a detail so specific and tangible that the story can only be felt at that point, not categorized, or framed.

The film centers on the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, a black Bay Area resident who was fatally shot in the back in the early hours of New Years Day 2009 after being detained by BART Police at Fruitvale Station, all of which was captured on Bart bystander’s cell phone cameras.

Michael B. Jordan delivers a whirlwind performance as Oscar Grant, one that sees him take on several micro- performances dictated by the personality of Grant. During the Q&A for the film, director Ryan Coogler spoke about his research of Grant, saying, “If you go to five different people, you get five different stories (of Grant).” This is best conveyed in a grocery store scene where Grant jovially assists an unknowing white female customer with a fried fish recipe, while maintaining a friendly exchange with a coworker, followed by an emotionally- heated interaction with the grocery store manager. Jordan skillfully navigates the varied textures of Grant, situating himself into different modes of empathy, anger, and joy. Of the role, he said, “…I’m not a political activist, I’m an actor and through my work I’m able to spark conversations between people, and get emotions out of people to start questioning how we treat one another.”

His performance is a great complement to Coogler’s direction and script, where nuance and foreshadowing are handled with a level of subtlety that doesn’t overemphasize their presence, but captures them in striking, understated ways. The Bay Area itself becomes a character, populated by black beanies, water rushing onto the rocks of the bay, and that distinct diction and physical bravado embodied by Grant and his friends, all framed beautifully by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who shot on super 16mm film here.

With that foreshadowing and characterization, comes a rising tension in both Grant and the film that makes the happiest moments- Grant playfully brushing his teeth with his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) – bittersweet.  The sound design accelerates the tension, merging with the industrial, metallic rumble of the Bart train moving in and out of tunnels. The Bart becomes a warning, an element of dread in this way.

This is a film for the people, a film for feelers and thinkers who want to see a story about a flawed person who loved his daughter and family, and wanted something better in life even if he didn’t quite know how to get it. It is not a film about blame or about the cop who pulled the trigger, and it may be criticized for that lack of emphasis. But at a time where human beings like Grant are murdered and then scrutinized by the media about their “criminal background,” the film is important and necessary. It argues for a life that mattered to a daughter, and leaves us to wrestle with the hard questions of how this tragedy impacts her, and people like her.

Fruitvale Station opens in theaters July 12th. Visit the website for more information.

This Review is cross-posted on Shadow & Act on the Indiewire Network, HERE.

my mother and stepfather. a love.

my mother and stepfather. love.

I was an avid reader growing up. I read everything, even books that weren’t meant for children.

Mama by Terry Mcmillan was one of my first novels.

I recall reading a novel entitled Hand-me-down Heartache by Tajuana TJ Butler. It was about a woman named Nina who’s in a relationship with an attractive, unfaithful basketball player and her unwillingness to leave the relationship. Having witnessed her father’s unfaithfulness to her mother growing up, she had come to accept the behavior, though it’s painful.

There’s a scene where Nina stakes out in front of her boyfriend’s home, bangs on his door, distraught and angry, while he’s inside with another woman. As a young girl, I read this with fresh eyes for the denial and hysteria that Nina was experiencing. The scene was vivid, and so keenly observed that I felt Nina’s embarrassment, especially when he emerged from his home and told her to leave him alone. I wanted to scream through the page to Nina, and tell her to forget him, but something in me felt for her. I entered the scene fully, imagining the quick beat of Nina’s heart, her wet, mascara-streaked eyes, and the neighbors outside watching as she fell apart.

How do we get there? From young women, reading about love and feeling it in our imaginations, to fighting for it, and refusing to accept that it was never there?

We want to make our own stories.

I am transitioning from something that was not good for me. Something that I made into what I wanted. I am writer, a storyteller by nature, and perhaps this practice has seeped into other avenues of my life because I began to mold a story, envision moments I wanted to have, treasure the good ones we did have, and ignore others. I was editing. I was waiting for someone who wasn’t there.

Some days, I drove home from school, numb. The drive is long from Calarts (in Valencia) to South Los Angeles. There are mountains, big rigs, and long periods of space that I filled with thoughts and strategies of how I’d convince this person that we could make it work.

Unlike Nina, I didn’t learn this behavior from my mother. My mother always said, “Love those who love you.” She stood by this saying, never falling for men, or tolerating people who didn’t reciprocate this belief. Nowhere was this more evident than in her relationship with my stepfather. Some nights, she’d cook spaghetti, his favorite meal, but not without requesting that he pick up certain ingredients on the way home. He’d scour the shelves of the grocery store to make sure he could have my mother’s spaghetti. When he arrived with the needed items, she’d finish the meal. Sometimes he picked up the wrong ingredients, or maybe forgot the mushrooms, and would go all the way back to the store to correct the error. Later, he’d finish his plate and come back for seconds. He was full, happy, and they smiled with glasses of wine in their hands. This was a partnership that extended to the meals that were prepared. This was a love that I witnessed.

But I also witnessed a torn love. The love between my mother and father. A love that rendered my father frozen in time, cooking the same meal every night and recalling the lamb chops my mother used to make. His stories of my mother are a tapestry of my childhood, bordering legend, myth, and magic.

We want to create our own stories.

I am fine some days, but others I want to return. I want to return to the sweetest moments. Like, the time he surprised me and flew out to Los Angeles to visit. The day of his arrival, the emotional and physical preparations, new sheets and freshly twisted hair, a smile that wouldn’t disappear.

But the urge to return is quickly beset by the reality that the person cannot be returned to.

I have not been in Nina’s specific situation, but now, I understand. I understand how a feeling can explode into mania, into denial, and into an illusion. There is a need to create a romantic narrative from the unbalanced, from what’s torn and wounded. But, why?

Well, there are years of friendship, years of connection, and years of wanting. There were different states, long distances, and periods of waiting. I am graduating on Friday with a dual-Master’s degree, and I wanted him to be there. I still do. There are days I can’t believe he will not be there. For the last four months, I imagined him there, standing with my family, sharing this momentous day with us. He said he would “try.” That was a central part of my narrative.

I write love stories. This is a love story. This is love for self, a love that will not allow me to write myself into anyone’s life again.

If someone wants to build something, create something with you, they will do that. There’s nothing that will stop them from doing that. No distance, no practicality. When those become reasons to abandon a partnership, there never was one.

There is someone who wants to create an equal narrative. And it may be with me. Until then, I’ll write on my own.


by Nijla Mu’min

Thanks for listening.

water

he will come on a plane

the ride will be bumpy

but he will be here,

you will fly him through traffic

to a twin bed

 

you will cook him bbq short ribs

and sweet potatoes, too tough

he will smell your hair

 

you will find him in the mountains,

 

you will drive him to the taco truck

and hike Hollywood blvd

though you hate it and he will too

 

he will dance his fingers upon your neck

 

and need you for one more day

that you don’t have

because he’s got to get back on the plane

 

you will cry him off

and swallow the air

when it’s all done

~nijla

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I think this is a good time to talk about Rust and Bone, directed by Jaques Audiard. I saw this movie last weekend and it has stayed with me in fragments, in images, and feeling, ever since.

Why do two characters need each other? How do they need each other? These are questions that any great love story should answer. There was a powerful codependence that underscored the narrative: how does one regain touch, a sense of completeness, when the physical body is severely altered? How is physical strength and power elevated by emotional purpose; by being present with another person? Can one exist without the other?

Main character Ali (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer, after a scuffle in a nightclub where both sustain physical injuries. Later, Stephanie wakes to discover the loss of her limbs after a freak accident at the marine park where she was employed.

Through the film, water becomes a freeing agent, a body of acceptance that brings no judgement. When Ali visits Stephanie shortly after her accident, he takes her to the beach to go swimming. Ali doesn’t assume she can’t swim anymore. He doesn’t deny her strength, he lets her go. He entrusts her with this physicality, as the water does. He takes on the presence of the water.

But Ali is full of carnal rage, an aspiring mixed martial artist with a need to exert and bruise things. He coins himself “Operational” when it comes to casual sex and his ambivalence is funny, but wearing, and eventually complicated when the need- the purpose for physicality, starts to develop.

Audiard populates his frames with bodies, the back of heads- Ali and his young son as they watch a MMA fight together on his computer. There’s slopes of ears and sunlight accenting Stephanie’s severed limbs. There’s Ali’s son touching Stephanie’s artificial legs. There’s love scenes where her legs are exposed, and the passion is felt.

In one scene, Ali rolls around on the ground facing defeat in one of his bouts, but when Stephanie walks into his view, revealed by her artificial limbs, he is up and filled with something. He takes back the fight, and wins.

But, how many bouts do we get until we have to fight for something more, until past brutalities that we’ve perpetuated, catch up with us? In one of the most harrowing scenes, Ali faces the fight of his life but it has nothing to do with mixed martial arts.

I think it is a good time to talk about Rust and Bone. Of ways to regain touch, and purpose when there’s so many reasons to give up. Blessed by natural, felt performances that bring us into our own bodies, the film makes us aware of the need to feel, and live, when it seems everything around us has shattered, or has gone. We need each other, and that may be enough.