BY: JELANI GRANT
The traditional children’s song Brown Girl in the Ring became internationally known after being performed by Boney M. Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring won both the Locus Award for Best Debut Novel and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1999. Now Sharon Lewis is bringing the West Indies kids game to the cinema.
Canadian director Sharon Lewis debuted the first Canadian-Caribbean Afrofuturist film, Brown Girl Begins, at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Based on a prequel of Hopkinson’s novel, Lewis imagines a post-apocalyptic Toronto in 2049 when a 19-year-old Ti-Jeanne priestess must resurrect Caribbean spirits and survive the possession ritual that killed her mother in order to save her people. Toronto has been taken over by the wealthy, who have built a wall around the city and expelled the poor to an island off the coast, known as The Burn.
Brown Girl Begins stands out as a film with a “girl in power standing in the middle of the ring showing the world what to do,” Lewis said.
The film is an excellent example for those looking for a clear introduction to Afrofuturism, with its use of various Caribbean and African costumes, rituals and traditions. “A time like now where these types of films are important, people will be able to relate to women of colour, not just as actors but also as directors and creators,” Kabongo told Toronto Caribbean. David Rudder, who played Burn Dweller, said he was honoured to be a part of a film like this, and it was more than worth filming in Toronto’s cold. “Anything to help the community develop…hopefully in years we will grow stronger and I’m glad to be a part of that,” he said.
The night of the premiere Hopkinson was signing copies of her novel, as a significant portion of the crowd were fans of the book, based on the roaring applause each time she touched the stage. She said she was so impressed with what Lewis created based on her novel, calling it Lewis’ baby. She said Lewis had proposed recreating the novel before and now, after watching her work develop over the years, she was convinced Lewis could transform the story into something great. “My agent was still saying these projects never work, and every new thing Sharon would do was coming more and more into being, I’m just so proud,” Hopkinson said.
Emmanuel Kabongo, who played Tony, highlighted a line in the film that he said spoke to him. “Open your eyes so you can see is not just physical, it’s opening your mind to the blindness that has been going around in the world, taking it all in and acting upon it,” said Emmanuel. He said that once we ‘open our eyes’, we can self-improve spiritually and physically.
Afrofuturism has been trending since Black Panther was first announced in October 2014. In this year particularly, Brown Girl Begins, A Wrinkle In Time, and Black Panther are a few notable films that depict such a theme. Lewis defined Afrofuturism on CBC’s Q, “black people in the future in positions of power,” said.
This film particularly demonstrated black women in a position of power, leading their people to salvation. This is a trait that has, unfortunately, only recently become a possibility.
“When you’re running around with strong, powerful black women, you feel safe…I learned a lot about myself, in terms of doing a film of this caliber,” said Kabongo.
Hopkinson said, “It’s beautiful. The actors, the costume, the people she brought on, just amazing,” It seems black film is nowhere near its peak in regards to illustrating our various cultures, but in order to continue keeping this momentum Rudder said, “We have to try to make our own path.”
Brown Girl Begins is currently playing at the Cineplex on Yonge-Dundas.