Jinn, which premiered at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, is many things. It is an African-American story. It is a Muslim story. It is a mother-daughter story. It is a universal story. In many ways, though, this complex and excellent film comes down to a simple question: What’s wrong with pepperoni pizza?
That’s not the type of question you might expect a high school senior in Los Angeles to be grappling with, but when Summer’s mom, Jade, suddenly converts to Islam, Summer is forced to figure out her views on a whole host of new ideas. What food – including Summer’s favorite pizza topping – is or isn’t halal? When is wearing a headscarf required? And what should Summer do about her feelings for the good-looking guy at the masjid? When Summer goes to her mom for advice, she gets what you’d expect from any new convert: turn to the words of the faith, trust, and obey.
Jade’s unequivocal advice fails to satisfy Summer, who seeks to find identity on her own terms. Although she’s young, Summer knows a great deal about herself already, and she isn’t looking to completely overhaul her status as a strong black woman who knows how to dance and have a good time. As she learns more at the masjid, she strives to figure out how her creative expression and anti-authoritarian streak work within the structure of Islam. Is there a place for Summer in her mother’s faith?
It is astounding that Jinn is Writer/Director Nijla Mu’min’s first feature film. It feels deeply realized and continually compelling. Although Jinn is brilliantly written and Mu’min is highly-deserving of the Special Jury Prize she won at SXSW, it is the visual language of the film that most impressed me in the ways it illustrates the separate spiritual experiences of Summer and Jade. Those approaches can be described as movement and stillness. As Mu’min and Jinn producer Avril Z. Speaks discussed in an interview I did with them before their SXSW premiere, the characters’ varied reactions to the masjid were conveyed through different approaches to cinematography.
Summer exists in life with movement, energy, and action, and the camera follows this dynamism when she’s onscreen. Jade seeks stillness, calm, and peace, and the camera locks down in static shots when Jade explores her spirituality. The inherently competing aims of the mother and daughter lead to rising conflict throughout the film, and the moments they are together bristle with that unspoken visual tension.
The struggle to find one’s identity and develop a personal ethic is a universal experience, but it often gets lost in conceptual abstractions. I’m grateful for films like Jinn that put their characters’ abstract beliefs into concrete actions that must be dealt with in the film, whether those actions involve choosing pizza toppings or posting controversial photos on Instagram. The film achieves this concrete impact with a mix of relatable dialogue and charming performances from a stellar cast, including Zoe Renee as Summer and Simone Missick as Jade. They are so magnetic on screen, not only do I believe them as characters in the film, but I want to know more of their story once it ends.
The film leaves you with a profound question, one that Jade and Summer must both learn to answer for themselves: How do you practice your faith in a way that is life-giving for you but leaves room for the varied religious expressions of others?