It’s a minor miracle that any movie gets made at the best of times. This is all the more true when the filmmaker attempts something as ambitious as crafting an apocalyptic fantasy on a micro-budget.
For Sharon Lewis, the process of adapting Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Brown Girl in the Ring was a nearly two-decades long journey.
The novel is set in Toronto, Canada, following an economic collapse that causes it to dissolve into such chaos that the central city, known as the Burn, is abandoned by Canadian government and walled off. The people of the Burn are left without proper infrastructure (no electricity, plumbing, hospitals, etc.) and shape their lives as best they can in the wake of the dangerous gangs that proliferate the streets.
In an interview with SyFy, Lewis said she immediately fell in love with the dwellers of the burn. She knew she needed to turn this into a feature film. However, budgetary constraints forced her to move away from a direct adaptation into writing and directing a prequel instead.
“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,” Sharon Lewis told SyFy. “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.”
Both the novel and the film delve into Caribbean religion and lore, providing a vision of magic and loas within an apocalyptic future cityscape. Set before the events of the novel, Brown Girl Begins is the story of Ti-Jeanne (Mouna Traoré), a young woman coming into her own power as a healer. Living with Mami (Shakura S’Aida), her grandmother and a powerful Obeah priestess, Ti-Jeanne is being trained for a ritual that would enable her to call in and accept the loas, Mama Ache (Measha Brueggergosman) and Papa Legbas (Nigel Shawn Williams). Calling in these spirits would grant her the power to fight a local crime boss, who is poisoning and controlling the community with drugs. Considering her mother died in the same ritual, Ti-Jeanne is afraid and pulls away from her grandmother and finds herself drawn to the handsome Tony (Emmanuel Kabongo) instead.
Rather than the crowded, bustling city presented in the book, Brown Girl Begins is set on an isolated, dilapidated island, with the glow of the thriving city in the distance. This provides a sense of isolation, of being cut off from the world. It makes for some beautiful, sorrowful moments, as when Ti-Jeanne and Tony look across the water at the city haloed in a protective shield designed to keep them out — evoking a deep sense of longing for another life.
The style of the film is carefully designed (given the tiny budget), with the sets and costuming blending run-down technology with a hodge-podge look that comes from people making do with what they have. A mixture of vibrant colors and cool creams and brown tones make this world feel alive, and each character is well rooted in and shaped by this world. In particular, I loved the almost punk look selected for Mami, who is hard-edged when she needs to be, but is also generous to the community people around her, providing healing and support where she can.
Each of the cast members does a great job of making their characters come alive. However, I’d liked to particularly highlight the work of Nigel Shawn Williams, who had the challenge of playing three different characters—Papa Legbas, Jab-Jab, and Brukfoot Sam. Williams made each of these personas distinct, to the extent that it was not immediately obvious that they were played by the same person. In the role of Papa Legbas he especially shines, granting the character a sense of pride and power, danger and compassion.
The few flaws that exist in this movie seem to be primarily budgetary, stripping back every layer to the bare minimum. I would love to see what kind of films Lewis could shape given a larger budget to work with. Considering the recent growth of Black-centered genre files — A Wrinkle in Time, Lovecraft Country, and Get Out, as well as forthcoming projects such as Broken Earth (based on N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season) — there may be more room for indie Black filmmakers to make their mark on the industry. I hope that Lewis gets an opportunity to either continue the story of Ti-Jeanne or otherwise create the genre project of her dreams.