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 in particular Papa Legbas (Nigel Shawn Williams). This 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 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 moments of longing, as when Ti-Jeanne and Tony look across the water at the city haloed in a protective shield to keep them out — evoking a deep sense of longing for some other life.
The style of the film is wonderful, 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 feels like someone shaped by this world. In particular, I loved the punk look selected for Mamo, 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 do a great job of making their characters come alive. Nigel Shawn Williams had the challenge of playing three different, characters Papa Legbas, Jab-Jab, and Brukfoot Sam — which were all played in such a way as to make it initially difficult to recognize them all as the same person. In the role of Papa Legbas, however, he particularly shines, granting the character a sense of pride and power, danger and compassion.
I would love to see what Lewis could do given a larger budget to work with. Given the recent growth of Black-centered genre files — Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, Get Out, and forthcoming projects like Broken Earth (based on N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season) — let’s hope that Lewis gets an opportunity to either continue the story of Ti-Jeanne or shape some other genre project of her dreams.