When it comes to independent films, Jinn proved to be one of this year’s buzziest offerings.
The film, which boasts rave reviews and a 93% Rotten Tomatoes score, stars newcomer Zoe Renee as Summer, a carefree teen in Los Angeles whose world and world-view suddenly change when her mother converts to Islam and invites her along on the spiritual journey.
It’s the first feature film by writer-director Nijla Mu’min, 33, but long before it hit theaters and streaming services earlier this month, Jinn earned major buzz with awards to match, making a name for itself and Mu’min at SXSW, among other big festivals.
“When I was writing this script, I didn’t know the impact that the film would have on people,” says Mu’min of the warm reception of Jinn, which has been lauded for shining a light on young, black, Muslim women, a group underrepresented in entertainment and mainstream media.
“It was just a story that was very personal to me,” says Mu’min, “and that I knew for many years I wanted to tell.”
Here are five things to know about the hit new indie movie and the director everyone’s talking about:
1. Summer, the film’s protagonist, is loosely based on Mu’min, who grew up practicing Islam with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Summer is definitely an extension of who I am and who I was as a teenager,” says Mu’min, a graduate of UC Berkeley and Cal Arts Film School. “I was always trying to define my own identity and push the boundaries but at the same time wanting to have the acceptance of my mother and my father and the people around me.”
As for what’s different, “I was introduced to Islam when I was born, so I wanted to deviate from my own upbringing and give Summer a new entrance into the religion.”
2. Mu’min also set out to complicate the mainstream depictions of Muslims.
“You often have the image of the extremist terrorist Muslim or the opposite, a perfect Muslim who does nothing wrong and is very holy and pure,” says the director. “Getting in between those two representations has been very difficult for people who make films, to get those films funded and greenlit.”
And so it was for her and her team. “This is a true independent film. We had independent financing, went out to private equity investors asking for grants. We knew that we were kind of blazing new ground and that there hadn’t been a representation like this.”
3. Mu’min’s favorite scene in Jinn is a simple, but poignant one.
“There’s a scene where Summer is just riding her bike through Baldwin Hills and you can see all of the palm trees in the back, she has a scarf on, her bike is pink and green, it’s a sunny day,” says Mu’min.
“It’s just something about that scene. We have so many really sad and unfortunate things happening in our world right now, we just need to see joy. Just a black girl riding a bike and smiling can mean a lot to a lot of people, but it means a lot to me because that’s a part of who I am and who my friends are.”
4. Ava DuVernay has been a mentor of Mu’min’s and after seeing Jinn offered her a life-changing gig.
As far as mentors go, Mu’min hit the jackpot. “I met her years ago when I was a production assistant on her second feature film called Middle of Nowhere. I was able to witness her making her decisions as a director and it was something that inspired me when I had a lot of self doubt,” says Mu’min. “I was in film school and didn’t really know what direction I was going, but to have her mentorship and her guidance at that time really made an impact on me.”
RELATED VIDEO: Ava DuVernay Brings Powerful Storytelling to American Prison Doc ’13th’
After sending her Jinn to watch, “She really loved it and she gave me the opportunity to work on Queen Sugar which really elevated my life and really allowed me to survive, I was able to get an apartment,” says Mu’min, who’s now represented by CAA and working on her next feature film. Of DuVernay she says, “I’m really grateful for that support.”
5. The director is happy to be joining the ranks of black, Muslim women making their mark in the entertainment industry.
Mu’min credits Grammy-nominated singer SZA and others as inspiration. “Her music was such an important part of my process. She is kind of the embodiment of that artist who’s free but also has so much love for her community and for her father who’s Muslim,” says Mu’min.
With a nod to others like director Mara Brock-Akil and Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, Mu’min says she’s happy to help break down barriers. “There’s so many of us doing our thing,” she says of her peers. “It’s just great.”
Watch Jinn, streaming now online and available on your streaming device.