Doused in loud and abundant pink and green tints that shade her bedroom, Summer (Zoe Renee) pop-locks and sashays, rolling hips and tongue playfully in the view of her vanity mirror turned self-love sanctuary. Kinky black curls dashed with rosy dye arc around her face as she contemplates the darkness of her obsidian eyes; the way her curves are beginning to contour just so; and the smile she’s inherited from a mother, Jade (Simone Missick), who’s had trouble finding her twinkle. Before letting this beautiful synergy of sound, self-image and movement dissipate, Summer takes out her cellphone, snaps a selfie for the ‘gram and beams as the first few likes trickle in. Familiar as a scene like this is, writer/director Nilja Mu’min’s Jinn remixes these bedroom vignettes to accent the narrative beats throughout her impressive feature debut. By reinterpreting its fundamental parts–the music and dance, the self-assurance and the sought-after validation part and parcel to sharing oneself with social media networks–Mu’min creates a visual and narrative refrain that converges with Jinn’s broader message and internal conflicts.
The term “jinn” refers to a race of extra-dimensional beings in Islamic theology. These mythological creatures are birthed in the “smokeless fire,” that writer Shamira Ibrahim pinpoints as “beyond human but with the same frailties, neither good nor bad.” Despite this, jinn are largely portrayed as non-desirable in Islamic lore—their tendencies to shapeshift is said ultimately to bend toward self-delusion and unpredictability. For Summer, these aren’t just tempting characteristics. She, like her mother, as much as the latter hates to admit it, is predisposed to process herself through seemingly sudden shifts in identity. They are, indeed, trademark characteristics of any teen (or middle-aged person, for that matter) inhabiting and discarding disparate aesthetics, linguistics and spiritualities to find what authentically compliments their particular journey at that point. But these changes are made all the more complicated in the 21st century. In a digital world, both reflection and performance mandate our changes be recognized, consumed and analyzed in the dreaded comments section of our social networks.
In this way, Jinn—though it’s advertised as a coming-of-age flick—is more a tale zeroing in on one’s never-ending becoming and how that process is made complex by the community that’s grown to understand its members as a static persona. What makes Mu’min’s work uniquely impactful for the Generation Z and those younger traversing through a galaxy of identities today—aside from the refreshing vision of two black families struggling to be decent Muslims—is the practical ways characters ties to media provide its narrative with distinct realism.
Off the rip, viewers can sense that Jade’s entrenched routines are no longer tenable with how she sees herself. As a black female divorcee anchoring the evening weather spot, Jade’s daily life in front of the camera echoes a typical Los Angeles forecast: it’s going to be sunny every day this week and next week and probably the week afterward. This bleak sameness also clouds Missick’s face during the opening segments, breaking way only when she asks her daughter how she’d react if her mother shaved her head. This, no doubt, foreshadows her conversion to Islam and the adoption of the traditional hijab. In scenes throughout Jinn’s first act, it’s clear Jade’s been thinking about this for a spell, doing her due diligence to disavow the dangerous, violent stereotypes heaped upon Muslims by an Islamophobic news media. As one of the faces of that media machine, Jade’s conversion plays out on the public stage. Everyone knows Jade, the woman on television. But when she shows up on-air in a hijab, it’s like they’re meeting her for the first time.
In these moments, Jade’s comment section is made animate, in real-time; coworkers stare in awe at her like she committed a murder, and the blood still smells of fresh copper. And a few days later, when she returns from a long weekend, she is met by her would-be replacement, a giddy white woman named Melissa who doesn’t even understand mesoscale meteorology nor the fundamentals of water vapor. It’s a clear sign her boss is discriminating against her, which just adds fuel to the environment. She endures her coworkers gawking and her daughter’s initial mocking with steady grace nonetheless. But when Jade is alone with the Quran or at the masjid—or mosque—she feels singularly and emotionally edified. Unfortunately, for all the clarity she receives in being seen and seeing more clearly in these spaces, she can’t see Summer or how much she needs her mother’s validation through the glowing light of Allah.
After her initial reaction and a conversation with her father, David (Dorian Missick), Summer concedes to giving Islam a try. As she roams into the divine unfamiliar of the masjid, an overhead shot pans over her. The aerial capture—a shot cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole calls “a holy perspective,”—juxtaposes the masjid’s natural beauty with what Mu’min describes in the same interview as the “freeness of [Summer’s] black teenage life.” Here, Mu’min and Cole make clear that the godlike perspective in the mosque mirrors the panoptical sight of social media. Now stuck between two spheres of constant surveillance, Summer’s freeness is called into question not just by her friends, but by the tenets of the Quran. And when she does take a step toward something like free will that marries her spiritual journey and her desire for sexual freedom, a classmate sabotages her very presence online.
Summer’s social media scandal hitting the fan—and the underhanded Islamophobia baked on the faces of the people in her world—sit at the crux of the Jinn’s conflict. But even more is the question of whether one can freely live while being beholden to the molds and dissections of the community, digital or otherwise, surrounding us. The magnetism of the jinn—specifically, that of Sila, the type of jinn with whom Summer most identifies—is that in their cunning, passion and adaptable nature, they open themselves up to a level of free will that the Quran deems suspect. While oscillating between this potential freedom and wanting to be holy in the eyes of Allah and her mother, Summer cannot help but feel like she was born to be unsteady, to inevitably grow tired of any one way of being. In a profoundly impacting scene, back in her bedroom after fighting with Jade, Summer tearfully posits the parallel changes they’re each undergoing: “I’m becoming a person I don’t know. My mother is becoming a person I don’t know…I can’t be bound.”
Jinn doesn’t supply answers to these philosophical questions, but it hardly needs to. Becoming is all about growth and reduction over time. Inevitably, Summer was going to separate from Jade. She wants to be an artist, a dancer, a doer of hair, a seamstress, all of it. She wants to have a boyfriend, smoke weed; she wants to dance on a pole and listen to Kelela’s red light district records into the night. This was always going to be a problem for them. The brilliance of Jinn is at least partially tied to its centering of social media as a catalyst for these tensions, kicking off a snowball of interlocking questions on identity. Who are we in the presence of and outside the digital mirror? How sure of yourself can you be in either situation? For Jade, the answer is somewhere between her social media feed and a Muslim practice that allows for her to fly close to the sun. For Summer, the answer is a declaration: “I am the smokeless fire.”