Archives for category: writing

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.


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.


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.


by Nijla Mu’min

Thanks for listening.


Ciomara Morais and Cheila Lima in “All is Well”

There are few films that haunt me until I write about them. Some films are meant to be remembered but not necessarily reported on. Today, when I found out that filmmaker Pocas Pascoal’s film, All is Well (Por Aqui Tudo Bem), won Best Narrative Film at the Los Angeles Film Festivalfollowing it’s North American premiere last weekend, I knew I had to write about it.

The film centers on two teenaged sisters, Alda and Maria (played by Ciomara Morais and Cheila Lima), who flee a war-torn Angola in the 1980’s, seeking exile in Portugal while they await their mother’s arrival. Their stay quickly takes an unexpected turn when their mother’s arrival is delayed, and they struggle to survive on the streets of Lisbon.

A subtle, nuanced drama, All is Well measures the impending danger of the Angolan civil war on this family through the presence of a pay phone. It is here that both sisters await news from their mother. The phone comes to represent an uncomfortable shelter; a manifestation of what Portugal means and what it lacks as a “home” for them.

Pascoal works deftly with visual contrasts, in everything from character appearances to atmospheric contradictions. There’s a round openness to Maria’s face, while Alda’s features are more angled and exact. The physical terrain of their faces funnel into their character arcs, resulting in a relationship that is layered and complex. In one of the more symbolic scenes, Alda, Maria, and Maria’s love interest Carlos rest on a local beach that is bordered by a massive chemical plant. The idea of Portugal as a safe space, as a refuge or paradise, is quickly complicated. Portugal is a place divided by racial and economic realities, as seen here.

Those realities influence the way that each character copes with the civil war in their homeland. In capturing this, nothing is overt or advertised. This is not a film that holds a political banner. A dressmaker who masks grief at her son’s murder by becoming an ill-tempered employer to Alda and Maria, sits in a dark shadow smoking a cigarette when they bring up news of their mother.

That news starts to become scattered and critical as the film draws on. As the audience, we want the news just as much as these sisters want it. We want to hear their mother’s voice. One of the major achievements of this work is its ability to implant the audience so firmly into the relationship of these two women that one might feel like the third sibling at points. The actors embody this relationship with a sort of closeness that carries the narrative through slow-building scenes and more urgent ones.

There’s a special importance to this film at a time when debates on immigration, exile and refugee asylum are being waged across the world. As Israel deports Sudanese migrants who fled war, and makes plans to deport thousands more, we wonder about the human faces and stories in the midst of these harsh policies. During the Q&A for All is Well, director Pocas Pacoal spoke of the film as being a personal project, inspired by her own relationship with her sister. A film like this could only come out of that personal space. It privileges character relationships and atmospheric texture over political branding and succeeds enormously in that regard. It is in that attention to kinship, survival, and teenage rites of passage that larger discussions of war and exile can be fostered. When I left the theater, I could only think about these two sisters and the bond that they shared. And in the end, any discussion on exile or immigration should be centered there; with the people and their stories.

This review is cross-posted at Shadow & Act on the Indiewire network HERE.

I wrote this:


21 years after we learned

that nappy hair didn’t make you pretty

and the boys didn’t like it either,

someone is still pulling my coarse strands

to see how long it is


brown girls learn to love flat irons

that kill coils

brown women behind me in the mirror

tugging at my stubborn kink

to see if it’ll flow past my shoulder


4 years after my best friend

bent her face in pain and said sadly,

I look like an African

she’s behind me in the mirror,

pulling pieces of my hair

to see if it flows past the shoulder

seeing if it hangs there,

but it doesn’t, just curls back and

bounces out of her fingers

wanting freedom


brown women in the mirror,

wishing for hair past shoulders

pulling mine to comparison

hating the African that’ll always scream through

their faces

cuz the boys didn’t want the bald headed girls

and mine gives her a mission

to get longer


-Nijla Mu’min

© 2011

Partly, in response to this:


Hey folks. Long time, no post. I’ve been extremely overwhelmed this semester to say the least. This is my first semester as an MFA Writing student, as I’ve begun a dual degree/interschool program in Film Directing and Writing. It’s been hectic, but fruitful.

One of the things I’ve noticed thus far is this incessant need by some students to have writers of color point out and expose the social ills and injustices that exist within the world they are writing from. In class, Jhumpa Lahiri’s work was cited as being a “fairy tale” and presenting things safely for an American audience because it did not outwardly question the dynamics of the Indian society she was writing from. My question is what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with every writer of color not being lumped into some kind of cultural representative category? Lahiri’s work was packed with subtle details and irony, all strong in their ability to contextualize the society of the characters. So, why can’t that be enough? Why is she not allowed to write character-driven stories that aren’t overt social dissections when the same white critics who demand this, don’t do this in their own writing? I’ve yet to read a story in the class where a white writer attempts to deconstruct whiteness, privilege, and their relationship to social injustice in their fiction. Stories regularly feature themes of sexism, abuse, privilege, addiction, and class imbalance, but those elements seem to remain unquestioned when tied to white characters. However, when a writer of color pens a story where those elements are present in the text, the conversation is about these “issues” and how the writer needs to tackle them, and not about the story and characters in it.

My point is that work seems to be evaluated from a very privileged lens. I can’t stand sitting in class listening to mostly white students and faculty voice their concerns about the women in India who get burned for having sex, but fail to look at the very injustices happening RIGHT here in their own country- young girls being gang-raped and blamed for it, a black student being “auctioned” off in class by a white teacher, a Mexican child and her father brutally murdered by hateful vigilantes, as she begged for her life. Writers of color are expected to bear the brunt of social and cultural ills, while whites are the mere observers of it and not involved. If there is to be a conversation about how to confront these “issues” in writing, it cannot be one-sided. I want my writing to be read with the same character investment as another student’s, and not disregarded because I didn’t expose the ills of urban America in a way that satisfied my white classmate, who never thought or took the time to examine their role in perpetuating these very ills.


Can we just live?