Words by Sajae Elder
When it comes to science fiction, there’s a lot left to be desired in terms of Black representation. That’s what makes the dystopian film Brown Girl Begins so important. Inspired by the critically-acclaimed novel Brown Girl In The Ring by Jamaican-Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson, the film blends Afrofuturism with Afro-Caribbean spiritualism and the supernatural. The book and film’s main character Ti-Jeanne as a “reluctant priestess” who has to use her powers to carry the future of her community — a post-apocalyptic Toronto that has fallen to near-ruin in 2049 — on her back.
Ahead of its premiere this Saturday at the UrbanWorld Film Festival in New York City, LargeUp spoke with the film’s director Sharon Lewis about Caribbean storytelling, and positioning Toronto as its own living, breathing character.
LargeUp: Nalo Hopkinson created a really rich world in Brown Girl In The Ring. How did you go about bringing that to life on screen?
Sharon Lewis: Well, the first thing I had to do that any writer has to do is decide what I would cut from the novel. As my budget got smaller and smaller, I made the decision to make it a prequel: A coming of age story just as Ti-Jeanne walks into her power.
LU: For those who loved and enjoyed the book, can they expect an exact re-telling or will there be new surprises?
SL: The film is inspired by Nalo’s novel; an artsy, indie coming-of-age film that is a prelude to the book. So it’s a surprise but in a beautiful, touching, good way.
LU: What drew you to this story specifically?
SL:: It was both the specificity of the world — Toronto, dystopia, Caribbean-Canadian, and the young female heroine, who reflected back so much of my own world — and the universal themes of coming of age, trying to find my voice as a woman of colour in what can feel like a dystopian landscape in the entertainment industry.
LU: How important is it to center the voices of Caribbean and Diaspora artists and creators in your work, especially in sci-fi?
SL: I live for it. It’s crucial to place our experiences at the center of our stories. I want to work with Caribbean artists in front of the camera and behind the camera, and for the world to see how rich our storytelling is. I want to be seen and heard, so storytelling that places us in the future reminds everyone that, not only are we here, but we are the future. Even our tagline is: “The Future is Her.”
LU: When did you know you found the perfect cast, particularly Ti-Jeanne?
SL: Whew, that’s a great question. I had to make sure that Ti-Jeanne could be young and innocent enough for the first part of the story, and fierce enough to be seen as the superhero she becomes. I believe Mouna Traore embodies that journey perfectly. I also wanted to make sure that I had David Rudder in the film as he is a Caribbean treasure that lives in Canada. Of course, [opera singer] Measha Brueggergosman plays a perfect ethereal spirit.
LU: This film has been in the works for a long time. Why, even with such great acclaim for the book when it was released in 1998, do you think interest in funding took so long to become a reality?
SL: It sounds crazy now given all the love [that] genre films are being shown, but 15 years ago sci-fi was seen as a nerdy genre and Black sci-fi was non-existent. And even still, with all the buzz around films like Black Panther, in Canada it’s tough to get funding without a big name American star to sell your film. Or Marvel money.
LU: The film pulls heavily from Afro-Caribbean religions, superstitions, and rituals. How important is that to bring that into a film context for you?
SL: I really wanted to create a world that we could all identify with — the marginalization and separation of the poor — but also a magical-realism world, where spirits who look like humans wander the earth in search of a home, food and fun. I grew up with Afro-Caribbean spirits that were woven into our everyday life, and that’s what I wanted to present.
LU: The book does a good job of making Toronto a character in and of itself, and not just a setting. Is that something that will carry over to the film?
SL: I love locations as a character. In fact, I can’t actually start thinking about shots until I have the location. I design it around that. When we found this location with the perfect view of the Toronto skyline, then I started to shift the story in that direction. Toronto is a character.
LU: What do you want viewers to take away most from this film?
SL: I want viewers to walk away with a smile because they enjoyed being a part of this unique world and feel empowered. And to know that the spirits are with us.