Black Gold

(Inspired by Black Panther)

--------------

I have become unhinged

A woman without a place,

 

Summerwood apartments. African art on thin, white walls. Fertility dolls with chest that poke out like cones. mom’s at work, selling carpet.

The Black bookstore at Bayfair. Never had a name. A mall library for a lost brown kid finding my face in pages. Rows of lit, like untended crops.

I’m reading about Mary Mcleod Bethune at Mosswood Park. I’m reading about Sierra Leone. I’m doing the butterfly so good on wet grass, pressing my feet into soft soil, popping my body to Too Short. water from super soakers snaking through my tank top. I’m running. Boys at my back. One wants me to be his.

I don’t know what that means.

My babysitter lives in the Twomps, on a corner, in a big house I cannot remember the color. She warns me never to look out the front window, for it might shatter. Bullets become real to me when watching Menace II Society. I live in Hayward, but I’m learning to pretend.

Her father sleeps in the back room, dreaming of his days in Ghana. I remember his feet. Covered in a white soot from walking over golden sand, indigo I imagine the winds carrying me over to the water he remembers. Drowning me into a sea grave of Ghanaian grand-maidens carrying ripe melons and pink crystals they picked up on the bay.

My father once carried crates of whiting fish and newspapers to sell on Berkeley corners, under NOI orders. My father was taught that black man was God/ black man was gold. A brother was shot down in the street by police, his crates outlined in blood. Now he dreams in a wheelchair.

We’re at the festival at the lake. Men in mud cloth are playing djembe drums and black women run in freshly ironed daisy dukes, ducking seagulls and ringed, man hands that grab. Gel from fresh finger waves slide down their necks, like tiny streams. Someone’s cousin got called a bitch, and all the fine ones get numbers. My hair is nappy. bitches ain’t shit blares from that Cutlass. Supreme. Baby daddies pick up pampers on the way home, scotch on their breath, up in the hills. That night time fog, an abusive lover.

We were in the dark, watching a movie in a theater of embers, and passionate lulls. Black bodies on motorbikes, black leather and smoke coming through the screen. I choke and smile. Our hands keep crossing, paths.

I don’t want to be left with this memory.

Grand daddy was shot by a Black Panther in uncle Scotty’s corner store. Amidst shelves of liquor and salty snacks. Wasn’t willing to give up the money. Pay a tax for black capital. A bullet pierced his kidney, but he kept on stuntin, out there in his black fedora, mailing cash down the coast to Maringouin, Louisiana where Marcus Garvey once made stops at the depot. Maringouin, Louisiana where my grandmother sewed Sunday dresses, and stood on red dirt, forgotten.

Daddy in the dark saloon, sitting across from Huey Newton. Skin dotted by red and purple lights on a weekend night when black men stepped out to be seen. Oakland kings in wide collared shirts and bell bottoms reaching past their ankles. Dad knew a drug dealer, a real smooth, real cunning drug dealer, who was shot dead the next night. Bean pies, black gold, breakfast for babies.

We was all about the community, but I wanted to be a Muslim, he says.

I remember we were throwing our hair all over the dusk, going dumb at a college party, ripping our futures for a night. Ancestors in the shadows, watching with sage in their eyes. I see you across the floor, ignoring me. I dance harder, but still you do not see me. A fight breaks out and someone’s chin is busted, blood on knuckles and and a song says bust it open. My mom never wanted me to wear those blonde braids, but I did anyway. 

You Kings dip out the garage and I am left, wanting. Not wanting to be erased. Not wanting be erased from my own story. From yours. From a heartbeat, from a place that sings in my chest.  

~Nijla Mu’min

© 2018

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. 

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

 

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)