In 1998, Nalo Hopkinson wrote a book called Brown Girl in the Ring, which is set in a future Toronto where the poor are set apart from the rest of the population, confined to an island called “The Burn.” Ti-Jeanne grows up on this island, but she has a grand destiny: She will save her people, and her entire city, but as a priestess, she must rely on spirits from her Caribbean culture to do so.
Director Sharon Lewis embarked on an eighteen-year journey to make this movie and finally was able to accomplish her goals with the help of crowdfunding on Indiegogo. Now, it’s finally ready, and the world premiere is scheduled for September 24 at the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York. Lewis spoke to SYFY WIRE about the long journey she’s been on for this film and what it’s like to make this movie in today’s political climate.
Brown Girl Begins is based on Nalo Hopkinson’s 1998 award-winning novel Brown Girl in the Ring. How did you come across this book?
I enrolled in UCLA to study directing and it’s then that I stumbled upon my old friend Nalo’s novel Brown Girl in the Ring sitting on the shelf of my favorite black bookstore, Eso Won in Leimert Park. I opened that book and . . .
Magic and Real = Magic Realism.
I immediately recognized and fell in love with the marginalized Burn dwellers of this futuristic Toronto. I also recognized the sometimes subtle sometimes not subtle separation of classes and race depicted in the novel and it reflected back to me my own work and experience in Toronto. I also loved the melding of those races and cultures of the Burn dwellers — the inhabitants of this futuristic Toronto wouldn’t survive unless they followed the Caribbean spirits of Mami and Ti-Jeanne.
I fell in love with the heroine of Brown Girl in the Ring, Ti-Jeanne, a 19-year-old single mom trying to make sense of her Caribbean heritage and her Canadian reality. Ti-Jeanne articulated my own ongoing struggle to find my voice and the power to be heard that I was expressing in the short films I was making.
Your journey with this movie for so long — you’ve been trying to produce it for 15 years. Can you talk a little bit about that journey, and why you are so passionate about this?
Brown Girl in the Ring is a Jamaican children’s game. The brown girl stands inside the ring of children singing and then by pointing to one of the people holding hands invites them to join her. It’s a good metaphor for what I try to do in all my artistic work; to paraphrase bell hooks, the feminist black writer, our struggle as marginalized women is to place ourselves at the center in the ring to see the world through our own eyes and not translate it for the mainstream but invite them to join us in the ring, to see the world through our centre.
That’s what I am trying to do with this film, “Look, this is how I see the world”: a dystopia, a young woman with the heavy responsibility to save her people but who just wants to be in love. In 2004 I optioned the novel and shopped it to various producers who were always interested but confounded as to how to get a Caribbean-Canadian magic realism feature film with a black female protagonist AND with a black female director who hadn’t done a feature before. Seven drafts and 18 years later, here we are. We made the film smaller and smaller but we knew we had to tell the story and we found a way to do it.
The movie has its basis in Caribbean folklore. How familiar with these legends were you before you made the movie?
I’m both South Asian and Afro Caribbean-Canadian, and my parents are from two separate islands, Trinidad and Jamaica, so I grew up hearing a wide range of Caribbean folklore.
Many people see sci-fi and fantasy stories as escapist, but they can also be a great avenue to tell stories about what we’re facing today. Does this knowledge affect the way you approach genre and this movie in particular?
The film takes place in Toronto, 2049 after the wealthy have fled the city and walled in the poor. With the current political climate, the idea of building a wall to protect the wealthy from the poor is more relevant than ever. This literally could take place in any big city, as every major city has an underclass of poor struggling to survive and whose needs are subservient to the mainstream. The divide between wealthy and poor and the ghettoization of people of color is a modern day problem. In dystopian fiction, as in our film, these elements are just emphasized and portrayed in more cinematic terms. But it’s real and relevant.
This is a sci-fi film (with some paranormal elements) with a primarily black cast. In an era when people of color are trying to convince Hollywood that representation is important, what did making a film like this mean to you?
We made a conscious choice in who we hired both in front of and behind the camera. We are often told by the women’s movement that there is no room for race until they have dealt with gender and by the PoC community, that we need to focus on race before they can address gender. As a woman of color I don’t have that privilege to remove one from the other, so in our film, we tried to do both, and we did a damn good job.
The best part about making this film is that it ISN’T a Hollywood film, it’s a small artsy film and we didn’t have to convince Hollywood of anything. This wasn’t for them, it’s for us. The film has an all-black cast, and several of the key crew members are visible minorities. The producing team includes four POCs (three of whom are women!)
The main characters of Brown Girl Begins don’t conform to light-skinned Hollywood norms. Was that intentional on your part?
I would not hire a light skin black woman as the lead because it was very important to me that if I was going to portray a superhero that she was a darker skinned woman. In a context of beauty that gets judged on how close our features are to Caucasian features, this was such a great opportunity for me to redefine strength, beauty, complexity in a young black woman. And on that note it was extremely important that the cast portray all of us in our complexity and complexions.
What role does music play in Brown Girl Begins?
Okay, an Afrofuturist film — the music better rock. Hello, we have an internationally acclaimed black opera singer, a superstar soca singer, David Rudder, and Aaron Ferrera our composer gave me all kinds of sci-fi–Caribbean style themes. As the editor and I were working on the first assembly we went to the soundtrack of the 1988 Wes Craven film The Serpent and the Rainbow along with all kinds of Caribbean/American/Canadian afro-punk artists for inspiration, edited with temp music and then Aaron our composer did his magic.
If people just knew one thing about this film, what would you want it to be?
People of color not only belong in the future, we are the ones that will save us all in the dystopian future.