Thursday, 8 February 2018

Afrofuturist Film 'Black Girl Begins' Debuts in Toronto

By Neil Armstrong

Mouna Traore as Ti-Jeanne and Emmanuel Kabongo as Tony in the sci-fi feature film, 'Brown Girl Begins,' which premieres in Toronto on February 24 and opens at the Cineplex Yonge-Dundas March 2-8.   Photo contributed

A sci-fi film steeped in Caribbean folklore and inspired by an award-winning novel will debut in Toronto this month.

After twenty years, writer, director and producer, Sharon Lewis, is glad that her afrofuturist feature length film, “Brown Girl Begins,” inspired by Nalo Hopkinson’s book, “Brown Girl in the Ring,” will be screened in the city where it was made.

On February 24, Lewis, Hopkinson and stars of the film, including legendary calypsonian David Rudder, blues dynamo Shakura S’Aida and opera sensation Measha Brueggergosman will attend a screening and gala reception at Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario where there will also be performances.

In 1998, Lewis was studying at UCLA in Los Angeles when she saw Hopkinson’s novel in a bookstore. After reading it she was hooked with the idea of a film.

“I think at the time -- and I know people find this hard to believe -- there were no images of black sci-fi. This was way before a ‘Black Panther,’ ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ so when I read her book I just felt hungry to see those characters come to life.”

She didn’t know how it was going to happen because she had never directed a film at that time and she was acting.

It was only a couple years after she had played the character of Rude and it was the first time as an actor to be in a predominantly black cast with a black director, black producers and they had gone to Cannes.

“Those were heady times so I think at that point I was like, I must be able to do this.”

Filmmaker, director and writer, Sharon Lewis, whose film, 'Brown Girl Begins,' premieres in Toronto in February.  Photo contributed

Lewis said in the mid 90s there was a renaissance of black films where Spike Lee, John Singleton, Clement Virgo were having their heyday because “all of a sudden people wanted to see stories about black people in the hood but they didn’t want to see stories about black people in sci-fi.”

She said this was too out there, and on top of that, it wasn’t an African American story -- it was a Caribbean story so that was still very far out for them.

‘Brown Girl Begins’ is a post-apocalyptic tale about a young black woman who is trapped in a world forced upon her. Ti-Jeanne, a reluctant priestess, must resurrect Caribbean spirits and survive the possession ritual that killed her mother or her people will die. 

It's 2049 and Toronto the Good has been taken over by the wealthy, who have built a wall around the city and expelled the poor to an island off the coast, known as The Burn. The segregated Burn dwellers have been forced to scrape out a living by bartering, recycling, and farming. 

Mami is the unspoken leader of the Burn, sharing her Caribbean herb lore and leading her followers in an ancient spiritual practice. Ti-Jeanne turns 19 and the time has come for her to succeed her grandmother and become a priestess. When Mami tries to prepare her to take part in the same possession ceremony that killed her mother, Ti-Jeanne refuses. 

There were times when Lewis had put the project down because she just couldn’t take another no or she needed to make some money to live.

She said putting it down was actually a gift because she would run into people inquiring about it and that would motivate her to pick it up again.

She was also stirred to continue when she saw the stories out there that were not Caribbean or still not representing a young black woman. 

“I just knew, I knew that this was a good story,” she said, noting that support from the community kept her going.

When Barack Obama became president of the United States, everything felt possible for a minute, said Lewis, mentioning also the feats of athlete Usain Bolt and filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

“Those people overcame big challenges to get to where they were.”

‘Brown Girl Begins’ was filmed down at the docks by Cherry Beach.

Lewis said this banishment in the film is happening now in reference to efforts to not let in Haitian and other refugees and “we are divided by this body of water that is arbitrarily called Canada or called Haiti or called Jamaica and people are not allowed to cross into that water and have access to electricity, jobs, food.”

The director said she knew from the beginning that she could not have a Caribbean Canadian drama without David Rudder in it. 

Nalo Hopkinson, author of the novel, 'Brown Girl in the Ring,' published in 1998 by Warner Books. It was the winner of the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest.    Photo contributed

He symbolizes to her the political voice of the Caribbean and he uses art to do his politics. She wrote a cameo role for him because she felt it was important that viewers see him and remember him.

Lewis wanted to have a variety of spirits and Canadian spirits so Papa Legba is played by Nigel Shawn Williams who is Jamaican. 

She wanted a Black Canadian presence in the film as well and chose Measha Brueggergosman to play a spirit.

Shakura S’Aida loves sci-fi and when she came in, Lewis said, there was absolutely no question that she was the character, Mami.

Lewis wanted a diversity of a Black Canadian experience and she made a commitment from the beginning to cast a dark skin black woman for the lead. Mouna Traore plays the role of Ti-Jeanne.

She said often what happens is colourism and light skin women get the lead roles and they are the ones that are perceived as sexy.

“Mouna is absolutely stunning, you would believe in a second that she is a superhero and she is half African and half Caribbean.”

A few years ago Lewis initiated a crowdfunding campaign for the film and got a chance to see who was interested in the project. 

There were people from Trinidad, Jamaica, Antigua and Nevis donating and the other strong supporters were black female sci-fi nerds, said Lewis.

The director will embark on a Black Future Month tour with the film to Montreal, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto.

“We decided to brand the tour ‘Black Future Month’ because we really wanted people to see how important it is to see us in the future. I find in the arts and culture they love to present during Black History Month as our shared oppression, which is important, we need to know our history as Bob [Marley] says we need to know where we come from to see where we are going. But we also need to see images of us in the present and in the future so that people know we are empowered on our own.”

The world premiere of the film was at the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York in September 2017 in front of a mainly black and Caribbean audience and people loved it, especially when Mami steups and her relationship with her granddaughter, Ti-Jeanne.

“It is a celebration of our culture and that is what Black Future Month is trying to do, like let's celebrate our culture, we’re not just the sum of slavery.”

‘Brown Girl Begins’ will run at the Cineplex at Yonge-Dundas in Toronto from March 2 to 8, International Women’s Day.

Lewis says Ti-Jeanne is truly a feminist heroine who has challenges and needs help, and turns on the spirits and to Papa Legba for help.

“She has a balance of male and female spirits that she turns to for help so she’s not a Wonder Woman. She doesn't have super power strength that she can just do this all on her own. I think that’s very indicative of what it is to truly walk the world as a feminist. We need the support, we can’t do it by ourselves and so it is a feminist film because she has the power, she is leading the people and she has the vision but she is real. She falls in love, she’s not sure she wants the responsibility; she’s a flawed heroine. And I think often there are images of strong black women who nothing can tear them down and I really wanted to present a complex black woman.”

Lewis will be selling the film in Canada and the US and then it will be available by DVD, in I-tunes, and there is a planned tour for the Caribbean as well, possibly in April/May.

[A shorter version of this story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, Feb. 8-14, 2018.]

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