When Donald Trump announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015, Nijla Mu’min began to write her feature film debut, “Jinn,” a humanizing coming-of-age portrait of black womanhood and Muslim identity. And while Mu’min is quick to say our current president was not an inspiration, Trump’s election — and his racist, sexist, and anti-Muslim rhetoric that followed — unwittingly helped make her film possible.
It’s a story that Mu’min began to consider long before Trump descended the escalator in the lobby of his eponymous New York tower on June 16, 2015, to declare his intent to run for control of the most powerful seat in the world.
“I feel like I’ve been working on this film since I was young, and so I had all the elements of the story before what happened politically in the country,” Mu’min said. “I knew I always wanted to make a coming-of-age film centered on a black Muslim girl, so Trump’s influence when I was writing it, was of minor impact.”
Mu’min acknowledges that one scene does speak to then-candidate Trump’s prejudice, specifically his proposed Muslim ban. “A character mentions that they’re about to ban masjids [mosques], which you could say was a direct reference to the ban,” she said, noting her intent to ensure that the America inhabited by the film’s lead character, Summer (Zoe Renee) reflected the real world. “She is growing up in Trump’s America, and so she’s consuming all this hateful rhetoric, and, in that scene, she’s sharing her fears with her mother.”
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Candidate Trump would become President Trump, and, in early 2017, the Muslim ban took effect. It was around this time that Mu’min and her team began production on “Jinn,” amid countrywide protests against the Trump agenda. “I just remember feeling like, now more than ever, we have to make this film, because the fate of a lot of Muslims was dangerously uncertain,” she said. “And so we felt that the film was even more important in the sense that it could serve as one way to push back against the Islamophobic narrative.”
And so it’s with no small amount of irony that Trump’s xenophobia had a real impact on financing the indie feature: His relentless bombast gave the story a sense of urgency. “By the time he was elected, we were in pre-production, and were approaching potential funders who were saying, ‘We have to really make this film now,’ because of the perceived threat that his administration posed for Muslims in the States and around the world,” Mu’min said. “So it helped us a lot, actually. In fact, one of our investors initially turned down the project, and after Trump won, he instantly changed his mind and decided to invest because, for him, the stakes were suddenly higher.”
Less than 20 percent of the film’s budget came from a crowdfunding campaign; Mu’min raised the bulk of it from private equity investors and grants.
After a world premiere at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize for screenwriting, Orion Classics acquired all North American and Latin American rights to the critically acclaimed drama. It received a limited theatrical run that kicked off in mid-November, and can also be found on VOD platforms.
American cinema, especially Hollywood, has a long history of corrupting the image of a people that make up 24 percent of the world’s population. On-screen representation for Muslims of African descent is even narrower. One concern Mu’min had prior to the film’s release was how it would be received by other Muslims, especially the more conservative.
“I won’t say that I was expecting to receive pushback, but I was a bit worried about reactions from the more fundamentalist type of Muslims, who I figured probably wouldn’t like my film anyway,” said the filmmaker, whose father is a devout Muslim, and who she says appreciated the film.
In an environment bereft of varied representations of specifically black Muslim life, Mu’min said her experience with Muslim audiences has been satisfying. “Most of the Muslims who’ve seen it have responded emotionally, and are appreciative of the story, each person relating to whatever they identify with,” she said. “For many, a movie like this that captures the complexities of their experience, is very rare. But maybe as it reaches more people, the reactions will start to really vary, but I really haven’t had to deal with any censuring thus far, which I’m grateful for.”
“Jinn” is now available on VOD platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu.