Archives for category: life

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.

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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