my first time

Oakland can be beautiful at night. A melange of orange streetlights, wet air, and stillness. I shot my first short film there. I had no formal training, and no example to follow. That was 2006. I was a junior at UC Berkeley and my dreams of becoming a director were just forming.

The story lived just outside my window. On nights, young black men would stand on the corner talking to one another, sometimes very passionately for long periods of time. I would sometimes look down, out of my window, at them, wondering what they were talking about. Wondering about their lives. I knew that most people would assume these men were up to to no good. Maybe they were, but I wasn’t interested in that narrative. Instead, I wanted to tell a story about a black woman’s glances out of a window, and down onto a street corner where a man stands, sometimes engaged in conversations with a friend. As she watches him, her curiosity about him grows. She’s starts to feel close to him. She wants to know him beyond the glass. There are two physical worlds in this film- her room and his corner, until they collide. My script was free-form poetry, part narrative, with scene headings and voiceovers that allowed me to explore my character’s mind. Voiceovers, used sparingly and effectively, would continue to be a staple of my storytelling in future short films, and in my feature film.

I knew I would write, direct, and operate the camera during the shoot. From my background in 35mm film photography, I understood f-stops, aperture, basic framing, shutter speed, light, and tripods. I applied this knowledge to the camera I rented from the Bay Area Video Coalition. I remember the first time I held the camera in my hands, and how heavy it was as I touched the contours of its body. It made me feel so excited.

I recruited my close friends at UC Berkeley to take part in a multi-day shoot around North Oakland, where I lived on the corner of MLK and 52nd. One of my best friends, Janine, who also happened to be my roommate at the time, was a talented singer and actress  (I once saw her do an impersonation of Denzel Washington from Training Day and it blew my mind) and she played the lead role of Taja, a shy, emotionally-guarded woman seeking touch. Acting opposite her was a classmate named Gregg who I felt embodied the pensive nature of the man on the street corner. His good-humored friend on the corner was played by none other than Yahya Abdul Mateen II (The Get Down, Aquaman) whose sheer talent and personification of Bay Area language and lingo always impressed me. I knew then that he would go on to grace sets and stages, which he did. Aside from my actors, and one other friend who held the boom pole as I shot the film, there was no other crew.

We shot scenes in my apartment, on the street we lived, on MLK, during the day and night. I wanted to capture the Oakland I lived in- a place of leftover exhaust fumes from sideshows, of fresh peach cobbler in the window of It’s All Good Bakery as I walked by, and the metallic echo of Bart Trains flying by overhead. I remember filming b-roll on my street during the day when a male neighbor called out to me: “Bitch, put that camera down!” It caught me off guard because up until that point, I’d always felt pretty welcome and free in that neighborhood. This was when I learned that the presence of cameras, especially in marginalized communities, could be viewed as intrusive and tied to some type of surveillance.  To reverse that stigma, and use the camera as a tool of empowerment is something that black filmmakers and filmmakers of color have been doing for decades. I slowly lowered the camera and walked back to my apartment, feeling hurt by the exchange, but also understanding the weight and risks of what I was undertaking.

Soon, we were out there, at night with the bulky mini-DV camera, a boom pole, and ourselves. I was holding the camera, and following Taja as she searched for a soul mate just out of reach. I was shooting a stacked two-shot profile of Yahya and Gregg before I even knew the terminology for it. In the scene, Gregg speaks of how much he misses his grandmother and the sweet potatoes she used to cook. I wanted to reverse whatever narrative was attached to black men standing on this corner. To show that they could feel, miss a grandmother, and just be there, and be people, was important to me. Something in me just knew to adjust the camera for the night time light, and frame my lead actress in a close-up as she stands on the corner, searching. I think we are trained by the movies, throughout our lives. We are educated in a visual language that we sometimes don’t know exists in our minds and bodies.

My favorite scenes of this film were the final ones we shot at the BART station, and in the BART train. They still evoke some emotion in me, even with all the freeze-frame editing, mistakes, and pixelated camera quality. I understand, from watching these scenes, how I got where I am today, and what I am interested in as a filmmaker. Taja gets on the BART, and sits down. In front of her, sits Gregg from the corner, nodding his head to music in his earphones. She glances at the back of him, and remembers something about his body.  She knows it’s him, and she smiles in this warm, intimate way. When the train stops and he gets off, she wonders if she should get off as well, and at the last moment, she does.

She follows him up the BART platform stairs, and taps him on his shoulder. He turns around, and the movie ends. This is one of the most exciting moments of this film. I wanted the audience to wonder- what would happen between these two people who are otherwise strangers, but in this woman’s mind, something more? Would they talk, go on a date, would he walk away from her? I always imagined they’d go to Lake Merritt and laugh before kissing. Plausibility be damned. I’m a romantic at heart and this was my first short film. The magic of cinema is imagination. I would learn later that a story, well-told, can make people believe.

When it was all over, I thanked my cast and crew member and quickly found an editor to cut together the footage. His name was Sedrick the MC (he was also a Bay Area rapper) and when I watched the first cut, I was in love. I knew I was in love with the cuts, and the music, and the intentionality of image-making. I also knew I had to learn to edit (which I did) so I could further craft story the way he did mine. He added music that brought out a soft and gritty texture to the film, and we called the movie “Oakland.”

I was proud of this film and wanted my friends to see it. I held a screening in my room at our house- the same place we filmed in. I invited folks. On the night of the screening, the room was full of my classmates, sorors, and friends, some sitting on my bed, watching my computer or television (I honestly can’t remember). They responded with feedback, observations, and were curious about the ending, which I wanted. Later, I would show the film to other friends including Ryan Coogler, who would go on to transform this very medium.

This was the first time I screened a film, and it happened in my room in North Oakland, before the city was buried in new condos. This was a time where everything seemed possible to me. When I held that camera on that North Oakland street corner at 10pm, I knew I was supposed to be there. When a police car drove by, I felt like a rebel because there was something militant about a black woman holding a camera on an Oakland street corner, rendering images of people who had too long been deemed invisible.

I like to remember this time, not because I believe I made a masterpiece, but because it reminds me why I continue on this path despite the struggle, the rejection, and the pain. I am a guerilla filmmaker at heart, ready to make art by any means. I don’t wait to be told I can do anything. I get a thrill from visual subversion, from natural light on brown skin, from music and image, from love. This was the beginning of something I cannot let go of. Something that haunts me beautifully at night, never leaving me alone. This was my first time.

This post is cross-published on Blackwomendirectors.co

 

Baby Girl

I wasn’t really ready when he asked me to go with him.

It was kind of like a party but none of our parents knew about it. We held silence in our eyes, and smiled as we slept because we knew we were going away. It existed in our minds, a smoky den with pillows and fruity drinks waiting to be spiked. A pink and silver tunnel leading to a soft kind of danger we didn’t get in our lives.

That morning, Me and my friend Chastity hit up the record store to get the new Aaliyah CD before it sold-out. What I loved most about buying CD’s was ripping the plastic wrapper off. I loved crushing it in my hand. I knew this CD would be fire. We’d been rocking with Baby Girl since she was in baggy jeans, plaid overshirts, and white tank tops. We plastered her Tommy Hilfiger fashion spreads on our walls, and wondered if our bodies would ever look as lean as hers; wondered if our hair would ever grow long as hers.

Sometimes, when I was laying down, I’d let her music play softly. It was like light rain.

Chastity was singing off-key on our way to the record store and suddenly, I started to feel that maybe tonight’s hangout wasn’t a good idea. I couldn’t say why, but my stomach could. I started to feel trapped in the car. I wanted to run, but I didn’t say anything, just sat there, waiting for Chastity to stop singing. She finally did. I didn’t know what to do with myself when I started to feel like this. Like things were about to fall into each other, like people around me were porcelain, better off stored safely inside, away from me.

But it was too late because the kickback was going down that night and we had the CD’s in our hands. I remembered how I stayed up all night trying to master the choreography of Baby Girl’s video for “Are You That Somebody.” I wanted my body to sing like hers. I cinched my t-shirt and imagined my stomach a smooth terrain. My mother was in the living room, arguing with my uncle because he drove her car and hit a pole on his way home. My sister was pressing grease into her bangs and getting pretty for a boy who only called once a week. But I found a way to fly, in my room, listening to this song. It was hard at first, learning to float, learning to look in the mirror and see an R&B singer.

That night, I wasn’t focused. I was anxious on the way to the kickback, scared that we’d drive over a mound of unsteady ground, and sink. I started humming, singing the words to Baby Girl’s song. When we arrived, the windows were dark. Ronny and his boys were sitting on a porch playing cards, and drinking wine coolers from red cups. The sky was a mustard orange with flecks of pink and purple. Ronny slid across the dirt driveway, laughing. I smiled, as he grabbed my hand and led me into this place, this hideaway with green curtains and rickety tables.

Where were we? Why this place, on this night? Why was my stomach grinding against the sunlight.

Chastity slid Baby Girl’s CD into a boombox and a temporary calm came over us. Ronny started to look a little cuter, a little more manly. I remember when we first met in elementary. His glasses were so thick, he could hardly see. His mother sent him to school in pressed button-up shirts, and his arms were always oiled, vaseline rubbing off if you got too close to him.

Now, here we were in someone’s aunt’s house, ready to break. Ready to go into the world without our parents at our backs, bending to our failures, picking us up. Ronny stood under a glint of light and his eyes, a deep hazel, cut me. I couldn’t stop looking into his eyes. Something was going to end that night, something I did not know. So I smiled, and walked toward Ronny, put my nose into the crease between his neck and his shirt. He smelled like this house, this den of nowhere.

“Why are you breathing so hard?” he asked me as I lay my head on his chest.

I didn’t answer because I knew he wouldn’t understand. He understood only what was visible, in front of him. He was so good at math it made me want to kiss him sometimes. The equations sprawled out in front of him, waiting to be taken apart.

Then we were dancing- me and Chastity. Baby Girl’s CD was spinning and we moved under that mustard pink sky, drinking spiked punch and eating old chicken wings that someone brought. This music belonged in our bodies, in our breath. Jerome laid on his back, talking about college, but I only wanted to graduate into songs, hooks, beats, flat stomachs, and summer jam stages.

Then we were running. Running between big trees and sharp brush. A green, acidic smell showered us. A lady bug crawled up my arm and i let it stay there. I was still breathing hard, expecting something unseen. Ronny held my hips and followed my scent. Chastity sang off-key, kicking up dust and rocks.

Late that night, as Baby Girl’s CD trailed off into the steady sound of crickets, I watched the shadows of trees rustling against each other outside. I felt a whisper inside my chest.

When we woke up the next morning, a woman was roaming around the house with a broom and belt. She looked like Jerome. With wide, tired eyes and deep brown skin. She was yelling. I stood up, unsteady at first, wiping my eyes to the commotion before me.

“Boy, you are gonna get it when your parents find out about this!”

“But, Aunty we were just hanging out --”

“I don’t want to hear it! Who are these kids?!”

She looked toward us as if we were shadows or strangers, and we felt, for the first time since being there, small.

I looked out of the window and saw Chastity in the car, changing clothes. I watched her, so free, pulling a sweatshirt over her tank top, then things got slower. She leaned into the radio. She stopped. She looked out of the car, through the window, into my eyes. And that’s when i knew. I walked out of the door, Ronny calling after me, but I couldn’t hear anything but a heavy stream of wind. I walked to the car, opened the door and got in. I fastened my seatbelt, listened to the radio, and vomited.

The next day at school, everyone was talking about it. The plane crash. How Baby Girl died. How it happened, why it happened, how she clung to life in those last seconds of descent, as if they knew. As if they were there themselves, beside her. Some people said they saw pictures. Pictures of her lifeless body, her hair burned into the seat. Her lean frame laid out amongst the brush. These pictures did not exist, only in nightmares and echoes of her songs on our lips.

Ronny got us big black t-shirts with her face printed on them and “One in A Million” etched across the bottom. He wore his like a religious robe, professing his love through this growing collection, hanging them in his closet, one for a each day.

That night it happened, I knew I felt something. I know my stomach built a cage around itself, but then tried to break free of the cage. I knew i felt rushing air on my skin. I knew I was seeing what others could not, and I was tasting a freedom I had never known. That night, wrapped up in Ronny’s arms, unable to speak what i knew. Running in silence, dancing and daring the world to stop me, until it did.

© Nijla Baseema Mu'min

2017

farewell westchester

There are planes above us

chicken thighs on the grill

and black girls swimming through soft blue water

 

the apartments are made with double-paned windows

one to close out the cold

one to cut out the deep whisper of engines

 

we sit on a rust orange couch

talking about movies we’ll never make

quizzing each other about movie stars we’ll never know

 

Westchester is dry heat and jet fumes all over

black girls swimming in the hot tub

apartment jungle stucco maze

 

how did i get here, feel home here

on wide streets and parking structures

full of ghosts

 

we fly and argue and laugh

because it’s so hot in this room

you’re on the way out to grill a steak

 

Westchester is a dream

a gray and silver stallion made of smoke

 

Westchester is fast and affordable

when Los Angeles pulls out and away

families can still eat at Sizzler

 

men with vacant eyes

sports bars with Inglewood OG’s

and women with finger waves hot off the beach

 

live here

because maybe i never wanted to leave

maybe i’ll miss you

 

maybe this place is so far from what i know

what i know to love

but we made home here for months

we made home in the exhaust of airplanes

we made laughter and long walks out of nowhere

 

The abandoned lot to Hollywood

~Nijla (2017)

what is this thing called breathing

For Karen Elaine Smith, Rashanda Franklin, and Sheila Abdus-Salaam

 

1.

I’m sure you were headed to work

tasting the last bite of bagel on your tongue

freshly ironed slacks and wig right

all you could see were faces

 

Down into a windy city of forgotten

 

down the street, past that taco place

where you maybe first met him

down into the seat, red spilling over

because of a gun

and your sons sitting inside the car

 

What is this thing called breathing

a gift unfolded

the water so cold against your face

 

2.

why did he come here?

to my space

i cannot feel my hands

and the water is colder than i remember

and we’re gone

cut off from the air that fed us

and the hands that held us

and the eyes that saw us

Really saw us

in dandelion golds and evenings on that porch

splinters in our fingers, running through weeds with flip flops on

and icees in our hands because DC is hot,

and Richmond is too, in an abandoned way

jumping on rocks and catching light

jumping into vaselined arms and fresh tats

he cried for me, once

he cried for me

and the tears soaked the cotton

the cotton close to my chest

 

3.

I was breathing

 

I learned to swim from my father

who learned to swim from being pushed into a water hole

and fighting his way back up

I am heavier these days

and i am brown

I am finding it harder to move in the world

someone’s at my back

barrel at my window

The wind on my stomach

 

In this river,

 

what is this thing called breathing?

 

~Nijla Mu’min