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From 'Jinn' To 'Just Another Girl On The I.R.T.': Black Girlhood On Film

Summer (Zoe Renee) comes to terms with her mother's new faith in <em>Jinn</em>, one of only a handful of films to deal with the experience of being young, female and black in America.
Orion Classics
Summer (Zoe Renee) comes to terms with her mother's new faith in Jinn, one of only a handful of films to deal with the experience of being young, female and black in America.

Discussions of diversity in Hollywood may seem trendy, but for audiences who don't normally see actors who look like them, or stories told about their communities, such conversations are vital, and action necessary.

To date, not nearly enough films have featured notably diverse casts and crews, or stories that burn with a topical poignancy, and there's hope for the many projects now in development. But the numbers are slow to change. That's why a rare movie like Jinn -- a coming-of-age story about a black teenager whose mother converts to Islam — garners such anticipation; odds are we won't see another movie like it for a while.

The good news is that Jinn is great.

Its tension-fueled mother-daughter story is refreshingly candid, as it explores what it's like to make a major life change like adopting a new religion – especially to a faith unfairly maligned by the United States.

Nijla Mu'min's debut feature joins the very short list of U.S. movies that feature a black girl as a lead character. True to the movie's title, Summer (Zoe Renee) is a fiery spirit who pushes against her mother's new rules, her friends' judgment and her mosque's teachings, sometimes to her own detriment. She's a fully-formed character who arrives at a place of understanding, finding a peace between her passion for dancing and her mother's new faith. She may even come around to find her own place in this new community.

For black girls, onscreen representation remains scarce or stereotypical, but Jinn gives audiences a powerful heroine. She's imperfect yet open to learning about herself. Summer joins characters like the conflicted girls of Jim McKay's Our Song, a 2000 movie about friends who drift away from each other through life's many changes. We can also see traces of Summer's self-reliance in Troy (Zelda Harris), the main character of Spike Lee's semi-autobiographical 1994 drama Crooklyn. It's there, too, in the open manner of Chantel (Ariyan A. Johnson) as she tells both those around her and the audience about her plans to go to college in Leslie Harris' groundbreaking 1993 film Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.

There's no one way to depict girlhood, and McKay's heartfelt drama Our Song captures the many different paths along which growing up can take you. Kerry Washington, Anna Simpson and Melissa Martinez play three close friends living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. They bond — over shared secrets, and about boys — as they attend practice with their local community band and teach each other Spanish. But over the course of a summer, Joycelyn (Simpson) finds new friends, Maria (Martinez) learns that she's pregnant and Lanisha (Washington) decides to go to a better school, far away from their neighborhood after the girls' school is closed for asbestos.

The girls' shared scenes are tender but not without conflict, in much the same way that Summer and her friends fall out in Jinn. While Summer is figuring out her faith, one of her friends judges her, and Summer retaliates in anger. But part of growing up is learning what to say to friends who hurt you, and it's a lesson explored in both movies.

Crooklyn's Troy is younger than Jinn's Summer, but no less spirited. Growing up in a household full of brothers and two argumentative parents in 1970s Brooklyn, the audience can feel Troy's need to scream to be heard over the commotion. She doesn't shy away from fights, including those with her family, especially with her much more conservative Southern cousins, whom she's sent to live with over summer break.

Troy's conflict mirrors that of Summer's, when her mother (Simone Missick) first dons a headscarf and starts frequenting the mosque. Both girls feel out of place in these new spaces because they aren't the homes they grew up in, but in their own way, they make peace. Troy gains a better understanding of her cousin, and Summer learns to see things from her mom's point of view. Both Jinn and Crooklyn also feature mother-daughter drama. Eventually, a kind of quiet understanding connects Troy to her mother (Alfre Woodard) – they're the ones who keep the household running, not the guys.

In Leslie Harris' Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., Chantel is a smart teen who wants to get ahead in life. She dreams of becoming a doctor, and wants desperately for others to see her as more than "just another girl." She has a full schedule between work, school and caring for her younger brothers, yet that isn't the only thing she's going to have to deal with on her way to college. Chantel is a bold personality who regularly breaks the movie's fourth wall to address the audience. Her aspirational energy resembles Summer's dreams of pursuing dance in college; her upbeat attitude defies the labels others want to put on her — a trait all of these girls share.

These movies are fascinated by the things that our culture dismisses in girls: their feelings, thoughts, fears and hopes.The filmmakers concern themselves with the inner and outer lives of these young women — both the time they spend in front of a mirror, practicing a performance, and their connections with family, friends and crushes.

Historically, movies about girls haven't made their way onto many lists of great coming-of-age stories – especially not stories about girls of color. Very few other films spotlight black girlhood as prominently as Jinn, including Kasi Lemmons' 1997 Eve's Bayou, Ossie Davis' 1972 Black Girl and Céline Sciamma's 2014 Girlhood. That's simply not enough. We urgently need the talk about diversity to turn to action, and for more directors like Nijla Mu'min to get the chance to tell and distribute their stories to meet the growing need for coming-of-age stories about girls from all backgrounds, faiths and color.

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