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VIEWFINDER: THE POWER OF A PERSONAL STORY

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Last year, I won the award for Best Screenplay at the Urbanworld Film Festival, for a feature romance I’d written entitled Noor. The story centers on a black woman in Brooklyn who develops an unexpected romance with an Arab bodega worker (Rami) after her brother is murdered outside of the bodega by a police officer. It’s a high-stakes romance with topical commentary on human rights and cross-cultural resistance to authority. At its heart, it about two people falling in love amidst tragedy.

During a Q&A following the reading of scenes from the script, in which two actors played the characters Noor and Rami to a very enthusiastic response, I received a question from a man in the audience. He wanted to know if I thought about the mainstream appeal and marketability of my films while I wrote them. I told him that I didn’t, since I am more concerned with creating a visual, cinematic world. He then went on to say that my way of thinking could hinder my film, and that “personal” and “niche” filmmaking is not always profitable. I agreed, but I pointed out filmmakers who’ve built careers on making personal stories, or stories outside of the margins. People like Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, Jacques Audiard, and even Jane Campion, are storytellers who challenge the idea that stories about the inner lives of women and people of color are somehow alternative.

His comments carried sentiments that I started to hear more frequently from people: why don’t you concentrate on a more mainstream story?  And while I’ve considered the potential profitability of trying to make a “general” crowd-pleaser, it made me think. When do we start to question the idea of mainstream success and profitability, when it comes to black film? Why is there a need for filmmakers of color to make mainstream films that sell, rather than artistic portraits that build cinematic legacies?

These are complex questions. My romantic drama, featuring a black woman raised in a Muslim family and a Palestinian man, would be considered “niche,” according to that man in the audience, though the universality of love and passion, and of chemistry between two people, carries the story. That is why it succeeds as a script. I think of other women and filmmakers of color who’ve made films that have been classified as “alternative” or niche simply because the characters in them are black, Mexican, Indian, or Chinese, when the stories themselves have been riveting to audiences in general.

Recently, Gina Prince-Bythewood pointed out this inconsistency with her critically acclaimed film Beyond the Lights, a love story about a popular singer and a police officer who develop a deep connection after her sudden suicide attempt. It’s a music film and a subtle statement about pop culture’s treatment of women, but it’s also an engrossing story about two people trying to pave their own way amidst the control and expectations of their parents and of media. Despite the universality of the story, it was frequently categorized as an urban drama, which in many ways, it was not.

It is important we embrace spaces, like AFFRM, where our stories can be given the respect and treatment they deserve, not as “niche” films, but as cinematic stories in a respective genre- romance, coming-of-age, suspense, fantasy. The mere of existence of a non-white, non-male character should not invalidate the stories we tell, because in perpetuating that thinking, we invalidate the experiences of the many women and people of color who live in this world, and who watch movies. They are an active audience that matters. Why is it that some personal or “non-traditional” stories made by white, male filmmakers are nominated for Oscars (Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Darren Aronoksky’s Black Swan) for their ingenuity and skill, but when women and filmmakers of color do the same, they are questioned about their choices?

I’ve thought about that man’s questions and remarks about my script many times since that Q&A. Sometimes, when it seems too hard to make films as a black woman, I think, maybe he’s right. But, when I return to my script, the fiery passion, the truth, the tastes and sounds of the world I created, and the romance that blossoms, I know that this story is necessary and beautiful.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nijla Mu’min is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and essayist whose work can be found at www.nijlamumin.com