This is a movie about crossing into worlds bordered by words, silences and thumping bass lines.
With Jinn, writer/director Nijla Mu’min places gender, religion, race, sex and identity at the center of her narrative about Summer (Zoe Renee), a charismatic, seventeen-year-old black girl who spends her senior year in high school dancing and anxiously awaiting word about her application to CalArts. Her range of looks and styles makes her a social chameleon, and she flirts with young men and women to score small victories like avoiding the charge for extra pepperoni on her pizza.
Like so many children in Los Angeles, she is a child of divorce. Her father, David (Dorian Missick), lives in Studio City while Summer lives with her mother, Jade Jennings (Simone Missick), in LA proper. Jade is a popular meteorologist on the local news who has embarked on the slow process of converting to Islam. When she first appears onscreen, Jade is among the worshipers at a local mosque, partaking in prayer, but the simplicity she finds in the Muslim faith is about to complicate life for her and her daughter.
Jade is a seeker and feels her spiritual journey has led her to Islam. She wants to share the beauty she finds in the Quran with Summer, but her daughter is resistant. Humanizing people of the Muslim faith is one of the missions of this movie, so Summer wades through some bad information from her friends about Islam before agreeing to attend the mosque. She gravitates toward Tahir (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a classmate from a devout Muslim family. Tahir’s parents Rasheedah (Kelly Jenrette) and Dawud (Damien D. Smith) are the conduit through which Mu’min illustrates the normalcy of an American family that is devoted to Islam. Their faith extends to their son, who they fearlessly leave alone with Summer, upstairs in Tahir’s bedroom. This faith is not misplaced, at least for a time.
Summer tries to meld the two worlds she’s suddenly a part of, high school and the mosque. Her friends Blaine (Ashlei Foushee) and Tati (Maya Morales) taunt her into taking a photo wearing only jeans, a bra and her hijab. Dubbed the “halal hottie,” the photo becomes a viral sensation and ends up in the inbox of Iman Khalid (Hisham Tawfiq), who addresses the local controversy from the minbar. He tells the story of angels and jinn. Jinn are highly intelligent shapeshifters whose actions are morally dubious. As a teenager struggling with forces that hope to control her identity, Summer latches onto the story and begins to wonder about her nature. Jinn are made of fire and a need for expression burns inside Summer when faced with a newfound demand for humility.
Summer is not alone in her struggle. Jade appears on television every day to guide people through the near perfect weather of Southern California. Her face and manner of dress have gained her a wide audience. The revelation of her new faith could mean career suicide, but if she is to hold her daughter to a less garish standard, then she has to adopt one of her own. She finally arrives to work one day, wearing her hijab with the intent to do so on air. She shrugs off any last-minute chances to change her mind and begins her report, starting a conversation, which is exactly what Mu’min intends to do.
By appropriating some of the basic conventions of a high school movie—identity crises, internal strife and the looming talent show—Mu’min subverts one of the most common story types in American film, taking it beyond the province of John Hughes and white kids. Blackness is the default identity of the story and the role of Islam in that community becomes the otherness to be explored. Whiteness is often used for comic relief in the form of Jennifer (Emily Adams), Summer’s father’s girlfriend.
Mu’min does document an interesting racial dynamic when an elderly white teacher assigns an essay to Summer and her class called “My Identity.” The assignment feels simultaneously generic and profound, and Summer’s becomes a framing device in voiceover that exposes her inner life. These words and the poem she recites at the talent show are Summer’s power. While she struggles to please both of her parents, she knows exactly who she is. Her story is one of navigating fear to accept her undeniable strength. To that end, Zoe Renee manifests all of Summer’s complicated beauty in a star-making performance. This is her movie, but she is duly supported by a fine cast, most notably Simone Missick.
This is a movie about crossing into worlds bordered by words, silences and thumping bass lines. It is at once a uniquely lyrical film draped over a conventional structure. Arcs have to end, and Mu’min does not defy that expectation. Instead, she provides a slender masterwork that revitalizes the tired teen dramedy with some hard-earned effortlessness. Jinn has the magic ingredient missing in bigger budget fare: a singular voice willing to walk in under-served terrain. When the cultural conversation turns to the importance of representation, this is exactly the kind of film we are discussing.