The Myth of the Small Black Film

Jinn director Nijla Mu'min contemplates what “too small” means when it comes to Black filmmaking, and how this moment can shift that thinking.

A year ago, I had breakfast with someone I’ve worked with in the industry. During our chat, we discussed my upcoming projects and what I should be working on. He encouraged me to write something commercial and “big” to pitch to studios. I told him about some of my ideas, and he said none of them seemed particularly commercial or big. I remember going home that day, confused. I wracked my brain, thinking of commercial, big ideas. But each time I did, I felt false, as if I wasn’t being true to the stories that existed in my soul; ones I knew would be the foundation of my career. I kept thinking, maybe I need to write a rom-com about a generic Black woman that everyone can relate to, or a sports drama that would fill the theater.

Lynn Whitfield and Jurnee Smollett-Bell in Eve’s Bayou.

I quickly realized that I wasn’t interested in telling “big, commercial stories” at the expense of erasing the core of what makes me an exciting storyteller. I’ve always wanted to tell stories that I’ve never seen before, ones that tap into complicated realms of existence, humanity and emotion. Worlds that often go unnoticed and invisible in mainstream cinema; states of being that are complex and ever-changing. I am a fan of the films like Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Jane Campion’s The Piano, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou, and Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler. These movies let us into compelling worlds through characters straddling dual identities and lives.

Months after that breakfast, my agency began submitting one of my scripts to studios and production companies. It’s an epic, four-chapter Black love story set in the Bay Area, entitled Mosswood Park. I remember the comments from a film company that passed on the script, saying it seemed “too small” for their slate. A film spanning four different time periods, charting complex and deep love between two Black people amidst changing family dynamics and a gentrifying Bay Area, was considered too small for them to consider. Again, I started to contemplate what “too small” meant when it came to Black stories, particularly those centering Black women. Is it small because it centers Blackness unapologetically and doesn’t cater to a white gaze? Or because it presents Black people in varying degrees of normalcy and complexity that is not dependent on heightened states of violence, trauma, and pain? And when it does portray Black pain and trauma, the purpose is not for senseless consumption. What is a “big” Black story?

Alex Hibbert in Moonlight

I remember the discussion of low-concept and high-concept stories in film school. Low-concept movies were independent films, often character studies and “personal” stories, and high-concept movies were action, suspense, and superhero films concerned more with plot than character. However, in recent years, the lines between what’s considered low- and high-concept have blurred. This is the reason films like Get Out, Creed and Black Panther were so successful: they are strong stories with memorable characters, infused with the conventions of their respective genres. You could feel the director’s personal connections to these stories. Further, films like Parasite, Moonlight and Portrait of a Lady on Fire feel personal and epic at the same time, brimming with emotion and socially conscious messaging.

We are in a time when our thinking around story, what stories are worth telling, worth funding and worth marketing, must be totally reimagined. We must reimagine and reconstruct the way we frame stories about Blackness. High-ranking members of the film industry must divest from the thinking that in order to be “big” and successful, Black stories must be based in historically racist stereotypes and ideologies related to violence, white saviors, hypersexuality, Black-sidekicks, and heightened Black trauma. We must scrutinize and deconstruct this thinking and do away with it before more Black stories are shelved, and more Black filmmakers’ careers are stalled because no one wanted to take a “risk” on a bold story they’ve never seen before, not because its subject matter doesn’t exist, but because it’s been erased from the conversation.

Nijla Mu’min with actor Zoe Renee during the making of Jinn

I encountered this when I made my first feature film, Jinn, about a Black girl discovering her identity and sexuality when her mother abruptly converts to Islam. Some investors we approached thought this story was too small. They wondered who the audience would be. Our distributor also took that stance and didn’t really market or promote the film. However, it became a sleeper hit, discovered at festivals and online by audiences that yearned to see it. Two years after its release, it’s still being talked about. In that way, it is not small, it is a big Black film with an impact. There are so many films like this that approach subject matter which seems foreign when paired with Black characters – science-fiction stories, fantasy, coming-of-age stories, noir films, unconventional biopics, antiheroes, sweeping romances, and films that center different facets of contemporary Black life. These types of films have long been seen as too small. But we must say, no more.

Sadly, this thinking isn’t only limited to non-Black industry executives. The person referenced above who told me to write a “big” story, was Black, and well-meaning. He works in a system that rewards Black stories based on their ability to appeal to mostly white executives. His advice may have helped me. But what is a small story? Small “white stories” permeate our cinematic consciousness. They are everywhere. They win Oscars, are lauded by critics as groundbreaking, and become a part of the canon. Films about white families, astronauts, stoners, wedding singers, entertainers, pregnant teenagers, serial killers, depressed housewives, Wall Street bankers, cowboys, incels, ballerinas, chefs, and so much more. They are believed in, funded, marketed, and rewarded with acclaim and excitement. So many people have bought into the idea that whiteness can be so many things on screen, and take so many forms, but Blackness must be limited, and confined to what’s recognizable.

Nijla Mu’Min on the set of Jinn

We are in the midst of a movement, an uprising, for Black lives. This movement must extend into the art and media that we make and consume. We can no longer watch as one or two Black films ascend to awards-recognition each year, while many others are passed up, stalled, and dismissed because they weren’t marketed properly, weren’t supported, or weren’t greenlit. It is time to hire Black and/or socially conscious executives who can understand these worlds and these characters. It is time to build more structures, organizations and companies who center these stories fully. It is time to open your minds to the possibilities of cinema in front of you. Companies releasing statements declaring their support for Black Lives would do a disservice if they do not honor the Black stories and Black storytellers of this time, and going forward. We must all support artists trying to tell stories that the industry might deem niche, and not advise them that “the market” isn’t interested. We are the market. We are the audience. And it is our time.


Featured image shows Nijla Mu’min directing an episode of HBO’s Insecure

Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. Named one of the 2017 “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker magazine, she tells stories about black girls and women who find themselves between worlds and identities. Her short films have screened at festivals across the country. Her filmmaking and screenwriting have been recognized by the Sundance Institute, IFP, Film Independent and the Princess Grace Foundation. In 2011, she worked as a Production Assistant on Ava DuVernay’s film Middle of Nowhere. Her debut feature film, Jinn, starring Zoe Renee and Simone Missick (Netflix’s Luke Cage), premiered at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, where she won the Special Jury Recognition Award for Writing. Her short film Dream was acquired by Issa Rae Productions (Insecure, HBO) for online streaming. She is a 2013 dual-degree graduate of CalArts MFA Film Directing and Writing Programs. Her writing has appeared in VICE, Shadow and ActThe East Bay Express and The Los Angeles Times.