In Plain Sight: Brown Girl Begins

Afrofuturism is a term coined by cultural critic Mark Dery, but I tend to lean towards writer and filmmaker Ytasha Womack’s definition which states: “Whether through literature, visual arts, music, or grassroots organizing, Afrofuturists redefine culture and notions of blackness for today and the future. Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. In some cases, it’s a total re-envisioning of the past and speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques.” There is no better example of this than Sharon Lewis’s Afrofuturistic film Brown Girl Begins.

Director Sharon Lewis has been a fixture in Canada’s independent film industry for some time now. She was the first woman of color to host the CBC’s political talk show counterSpin, and established herself as an actor, director, and producer. I’ve heard her speak passionately at screenings and on podcasts about being persistent in her craft by finding ways around obstacles she encountered to reach her goals. She is proud of her Jamaican and Trinidadian roots and is a champion of telling stories featuring women of color.  Her films have garnered nominations and awards, and she continues to work in the film and TV industry.

Nalo Hopkinson is an award-winning Jamaican-Canadian author who uses her heritage as a basis for her speculative science fiction. Using language and vernacular specific to the Caribbean, Hopkinson’s narratives are rich in culture, using folklore and the past to shape a future world that includes black people. She is a professor in California and teaches creative writing with a focus on science fiction.

Lewis and Hopkinson both love to create inclusive worlds and Lewis was driven to bring Hopkinson’s first book, Brown Girl in the Ring, to the big screen. The book takes place in 2049 where class divides the population of Toronto. Ti-Jeanne, a young woman who comes from a lineage with strong links to the spiritual world, must accept her past and her fate as someone who can save her people, her family, and be a mother to her son. There is magical realism, Caribbean folklore, feminist themes and rich black characters in this have and have-nots dystopian future.

Lewis would have a 15-year battle ahead of her to bring Hopkinson’s 1998 multi-award-winning debut novel to life. She wrote the script as a prequel to Brown Girl in the Ring, focusing on Ti-Jeanne embracing her role as a priestess and a woman looking for real love. Brown Girl Begins would finally grace theatres in 2017 and Lewis’s persistence to make the film defied the film industry at large and their unwillingness to accept POC narratives. This is a major triumph for Afrofuturism because not only was a classic Afrofuturistic book translated into a film, it was done on a very low budget and Lewis didn’t give up on her dream of creating the first Caribbean-Canadian sci-fi film. She also made sure the crew was comprised of people of color and women. Brown Girl Begins showcases Afrofuturism as an art film for a specific audience, a black, Caribbean audience, but this story of empowerment is relatable for all who see it.

My full review of the film can be found here on the Rue Morgue blog.

Watch Brown Girl Begins on iTunes and Amazon Prime (US).


Nalo Hopkinson’s statement on the film:

Podcast interview: In a TIFF

CBC interview with Sharon Lewis:


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