Caribbean Woman Superhero! Coming of Age in Dystopian Canada: An Interview with Sharon Lewis

Sharon Lewis, in her roles as award-winning director, actor, playwright, producer and screenplay writer, has worked in television, film, digital, print and theatre. She has directed over 100 hours of popular television, appearing on HGTV, CBC, SUNtv and the Food Network. In 2017, her groundbreaking debut Afro-punk SciFi feature film, Brown Girl Begins, was released. She has also received development funding towards a video game, inspired by the novel upon which the film was based, Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. She is the first woman of color in Canada to host a national prime time talk show. She hosted the highly-rated CBC live political talk show CounterSpin, as well as ZeD, an interactive television and web CBC show. Her award-winning short films Chains and Ritch have been sold and broadcast on such networks as BET, HBO, and CBC.

She recently sat to be interviewed by Ari Hernández, María Jenny Vélez, Edgar Nieves, Frances González, Javier Cruz, Hector Mercado Soucy, Hilda Silva, Frank Flanagan, and Loretta Collins Klobah.

Your film Brown Girl Begins (2017) was inspired by Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Brown Girl in the Ring (Warner Books, 1998). Why did you want to adapt it?

When I walked into my favorite bookstore in Los Angeles and saw Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Brown Girl in the Ring on the shelf, #blackgirlmagic unfolded from the moment I read the first page.

I read Brown Girl in the Ring in 1998, and although it presented itself as the perfect fictional embodiment of my political activism, my passion for storytelling, and the unique voice of the Caribbean community with our “obeah” spirits and patois, it took me over 15 years to bring it to the screen. I fell in love with the heroine, Ti- Jeanne, a 19-year-old single mom trying to make sense of her Caribbean heritage and her Canadian reality. I knew then I wanted to make it into a feature film and optioned the novel in 2004. As Nalo is a friend, she made this possible. It took years of honing my artistic filmmaking practice to bring the story to pre-production. This film is an exploration of how you can find voice in what looks like a desolate world by empowering yourself and using the tools of your culture. I am now part of a movement of people who have brought this project to life.

What was the importance for you of telling your film’s story?

I grew up in Toronto hearing the Jamaican children’s song “Brown Girl in the ring, tra-la-la-la-la”. It was a game I played with my cousins. The brown girl stands inside the ring of children singing; she does a motion and the whole “community” must follow her.  She then points to one of the people holding hands and invites them to join her. It’s a good metaphor for what I try to do in all my artistic work. To paraphrase Bell Hooks, the feminist black writer, our struggle as marginalized women is to place ourselves at the centre of the ring to see the world through our own eyes and not translate it for the mainstream, but invite them to join us in the ring, to see the world through our centre. This is the organizing principle in all my artistic work.

As a Torontonian born and raised from a Caribbean background, the fusion and collision of those two cultures became the lens with which I saw the world and within which I created art. My centre is not just Caribbean or Canadian, or just feminist, or just my identity as a woman, but a fusion of all those parts of me. My goal in my work is to give voice to, entertain and inspire others by inviting them into this ring of fused identity. The issues of poverty, sexism, gender inequality, and class division continue to shape my projects.

In making your storyline work for film, what have you added to Hopkinson’s story?

The original content and intent of the project has not changed significantly. It is still a story that teases out the themes of class and race privilege and the survival instinct of this young black girl amidst the backdrop of a dystopian Toronto and her Caribbean culture and spirits.

As in any adaptation, we had to pare down the story. I was inspired to make a prequel to the novel as I felt that I was just getting to know Ti-Jeanne and our micro-budget would be better used if we focused on the character of Ti-Jeanne, more of a superhero origins story, a coming-of age-story that portrays when Ti-Jeanne becomes a priestess before being a single-mom.

My goal was to tell this incredible story inspired by Hopkinson’s novel, which would showcase the strength, diversity and love that infuses the Canadian-Caribbean community through the leadership of a young black woman. It was also my artistic goal that the process engage my community and that we build this up as an experience from the ground level.  The film is a portrayal of a young, strong black woman – a Caribbean superhero! Maybe the first Caribbean female superhero.

Brown Girl Begins has been presented and/or nominated for awards in the Urbanworld Film Festival (2017), Indiefest (2017), Montreal International Black Film Festival (2017), Houston Black Film Festival (2018), the Pan African Film Festival (2018), and the Trinidad+Tobago Film Festival (2018), among others. What were the reactions from the audiences?

We have really been incredibly surprised by the warm reception for the film internationally and at home. It took so long to make this film that when we released it at the time of the Black Panther craze, we were in the zeitgeist. We were recognized partly because of the tremendous success of that film and A Wrinkle in Time.

One incident stands out for me. We were screening the film in Brooklyn, and it was an unusually small audience, perhaps because this was our third Brooklyn screening. A young person, about 11-years-old, asked whether Papa Legba was a good person or a bad person.  I explained that in the film he is both and neither, and before I could finish, the other audience members jumped in. We had a beautiful conversation about how African gods are different than the evil/good characteristics of Judeo/Christian religions.  This discussion, activation, engagement with the audience was one of the biggest thank-yous I’ve experienced. Here was a mostly Caribbean audience fired up by the representation they saw of themselves, their heritage, and culture.

Tell us about the tremendous cast?

In casting, I made a concerted effort to cast a dark-skin woman as the lead, as we are so often given light-skin women as our heroines on screen.  As a mixed race woman, I appreciate that I too need to see myself up there, but I was acutely aware of the bias. So we cast a beautiful, talented, complex actress, Mouna Traore, who brought her Haitian and Malian and Canadian background to her interpretation of the role.  There is a cameo by the famous Trinidadian-Canadian Calysponian David Rudder, who also donated music and songs for our fundraising campaign. Likewise, Canadian blues/jazz singer Shakura S’Aida donated music, helped behind the screen, and appeared in the film as the quintessentially loving but harsh Mami.  We also had Measha Brueggergosman appear in the film an African-Canadian opera singer, which for me was thrilling. We were able to really employ a diverse number of African-Canadians and portray them in a powerful way – through music and action.

Who designed the costumes, and what was the inspiration for the designs?

The vision was to create a mash-up of ancient Carnival costumes with a futuristic feel.  A dystopia in 2049 probably means there is a lot of plastic, and, therefore, leather is well-worn and coveted.  Our leads were all in leather and wool fusion pieces with plastics mixed in. I was inspired by the fashion of the Caribbean, with its bright colors and originality. Feathers represented the presence of and connection to spirits. So Mami, Papa Legba, Ti-Jeanne, and Mama Aché had feathers. Tony didn’t. I wanted the costumes to feel like there was no separation between the environment and what you wear. For it to feel like whatever they were wearing was “found”.  The only character that I wanted to completely stand out, wearing a dead animal, a fox fur, no feathers, and synthetic material, was Crack, as she is devoid of the presence of the spirits. Of course, she had a whip and a piece of found rubber and aluminum as part of her “technology”. She is the only person in the Burn with a car and a watch.

In the near-future world of Hopkinson’s novel, downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, has collapsed. Food, monetary, and medical scarcity, buff addiction, and violence are norms for those who are trapped in the inner-city. Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother Mami are Afro-Caribbean sources of healing practices, spiritual power, and herbal remedies in “the Burn.” Fascinatingly, your film alters the dystopian setting, locating the Burn on a small island, isolated from domed Toronto by a toxic lake.

I purposefully wanted to make sure the world didn’t feel too far in the future so that you can’t divorce yourself from the real prospect that this could happen and is happening in communities around the world, whether there is a wall or an invisi-wall. Also, my favorite part of that location is that you can see the glimmering city in the background, just a boat ride away.  How true for us in the Caribbean, especially the U.S. islands, to see the shimmer of the West at our door. Sometimes it feels like a mirage or a tease, all that luxury, but we aren’t a part of it.

The inhabitants of the island are trying to survive, be self-sufficient, spiritually unify, and be willing to barter or share resources. How is your film accentuating this positive aspect of the future, community-building, the role of black people in leadership and healing roles, urban agriculture, and creative re-use of resources? 

What struck me about Nalo’s novel was that it made total sense that the leaders of the dystopian world would be Caribbean. We have survived so much in such close proximity to North America. We still retain our traditional healing and incorporate it with Western medicine.  We do the same with our religion. Look at Santeria and Voudoun, elements of which are present in Brown Girl Begins. We, Caribbean people, especially women, are so often seen as victims. It was important for me to make a film that puts the focus on our community and us being “helped” and led by our own Ti-Jeanne, not outsiders.

Ti-Jeanne is reluctant and not fully initiated into Mami’s spiritual practices at first in the novel, but in your film, Ti-Jeanne’s fear and the reasons for her reluctance to be initiated are emphasized more dramatically. Why is the focus on “fear” important in that moment when Ti-Jeanne must embrace her role as empowered priestess?   

It was really important for me to show that Ti-Jeanne had a real fear of being killed by Papa Legba’s power, in terms of the arc of the story. However, her relationship with Papa Legba – a part of herself— was also metaphorical in that it represented the internalized fear she has of her own power, of being too powerful.  Often women are just as afraid of taking power as we are of not having it.  We have been raised that it isn’t lady-like, that we can’t handle power, that we don’t deserve it.  I wanted to show a heroine that doesn’t use her sexuality to get ahead, but instead is having to find inner strength and that of her ancestors, and, at the same time, rejecting old ways that don’t empower her.  When she defies Mami and sets out on her journey to find love with Tony, it isn’t a mistake. It’s the hero’s journey; however, when she turns her back on her spirituality, she no longer has the power to be a leader; she needs both. We carry Papa Legba destructive power and Mama Aché healing power within us, and both are necessary.  She needs ancestral spirits and modern love, she needs technology and ancient ritual, and she needs the old world and the new world to be all of who she is. We all do.

In Hopkinson’s novel and more so in your film, women play the primary roles. Which character(s) do you identify with the most? 

As the screenwriter, I identify with all the characters, even Crack. It was a joy to create Black characters that were complex. However, Ti-Jeanne is the heroine for a reason, as I relate to her journey of having to find her voice— the same journey I had to undergo to write this script.

Rudy’s henchman, Crack Monkey, in Hopkinson’s novel is a man. You cast Crack as a woman, who is the buff and whip-wielding menace to Ti-Jeanne’s community and Tony.

I made Crack a woman because I thought it would be too easy to dismiss her if she were white or a man. I wanted us to see that we need to look in our own community for the change to happen. Also Rachael Crawford, who plays Crack, is a friend and very talented actress. I wrote the role for her.

Why does Nigel Shawn Williams act three roles, Jab Jab, Papa Legba, and Brukfoot Sam?

I cast the same actor to play three characters because they are all an aspect of Papa Legba. Papa Legba had to appear as otherworldly and powerful, and to make him embody three characters was a visual way to do that. Papa Legba is a spirit, neither good nor bad. He must use Ti-Jeanne’s power to stay alive.  It’s impossible for gods to be alive unless they are connected to human power. Secondly, Papa Legba “possesses” Bruk Foot Sam to manipulate Ti-Jeanne. Lastly, Papa Legba can also appear as Jab Jab, that part of us that is animalistic, goes by instinct, and should go by instinct.

In order for Ti-Jeanne to attain the power to take on Rudy and Crack, she must access the wisdom of Mama Aché, but only if she makes herself a “conduit” for Papa Legba first. Mama Aché adds mystical strength and beauty to the film, with the gorgeously attired and powerful opera singer Measha Brueggergosman playing the role. What can you tell us about Mama Aché?

When I first wrote the screenplay, Mama Aché was actually called Ova and was a nod to the goddesses that appear at the end of the novel to help bring down Rudy. When I cast Measha Brueggergosman, I knew that her gift was her voice, so to silence her voice was a powerful way to show the harsh effect of Crack in the Burn. When Mama Aché stops singing, it is a visual and auditory way to feel that break from the spirits.  When Measha/Mama Aché does sing, we are healed; the worlds come together.  Mama Aché is an amalgamation of Oya, Oshun, Yemayá and a mash-up of modern diva.

The coming-of-age theme includes a young-love story wherein Ti-Jeanne and her boyfriend Tony have regular, affectionate sex, with much hugging, kissing, play and talking.

The love scenes were purposefully crafted to show sex between two consenting young black people as filled with tenderness. So often the sex scenes with Latino or Afro-Caribbean are seen as “hot”, “wild”, “animalistic”, so it was important to show a loving couple.  Also, I wanted to show that a young heroine could be in control of her first experience, so she was on top, and he was shown with partial nudity—not her.  This wasn’t to advocate for teenage sex or unprotected sex, but to see what it looks like in a respectful atmosphere.  Tony asks, “Are you sure?” and she nods.  Consent.

Can you say something about how you tried to construct the dystopic, carnivalesque, or mythic feel of the film through locations, camera work, props, set, or editing?

As a filmmaker, I am always informed by my location. I prefer to shoot at a location rather than a studio. So I adjusted the script to suit the location of an old abandoned cement factory that had the most spectacular view of the city of Toronto. I wanted the film to feel lyrical, so I didn’t want editing continuity to tie us down. I wanted disconnected voices; the presence of spirits through feathers blowing. I am inspired by Terrence Malick and Haile Gerima and how they are able to convey spirit in motion through a bird flying or leaves on a tree rustling.  I tried to use a similar technique in my film.  In terms of the edit, I worked very closely with the two editors, Richard Mandin and Benjamin Lawrence, who were instrumental in finding a unique way to cut the film. Soundscape was actually a huge project, to make sure that it felt dissonant and included the presence of the spirits and had a bit of a Caribbean feel.

In your film, buff addiction is a way to physically alter and abduct island people to become “smart” slaves for the privileged of the domed city.

There are no guns in the Burn on purpose, as I wanted to show, with the use of Crack’s whip, that the past still enslaves us. The only way we will have freedom is not through guns, but through strength of spirit.  I am not saying we don’t need to sometimes defend ourselves with guns, but that guns alone are meaningless and can and are being used by our own people against us.  We must connect to a greater purpose, and to do so, we need to connect to our great history not just our enslaved history.

After the international box office success of Black Panther in 2018, Afrofuturism has become a trend topic (though many musicians, sound mixologists, visual artists, writers, and film makers of Africa and the African Diaspora have previously created works in the genre). Are you considering making the sequel to Brown Girl Begins?

Yes my partner and I right now are writing the sequel.

Would you like to adapt any other Caribbean novel?

Truly, what I would like is for a script to be presented to me that has a strong female heroine who must challenge a soucouyant or other traditional scary spirits or ghosts with technology, wit and spirit strength, so I can just get to the part that I like which is directing!

Ari Hernández, María Jenny Vélez, Edgar Nieves, Frances González, Javier Cruz, Hector Mercado Soucy, Hilda Silva, and Frank Flanagan are students in the Graduate Program of the Department of English, College of Humanities, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus; Loretta Collins Klobah is a Full Professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Her poetry collection Twelve-Foot Neon Woman (Peepal Tree) received the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize in poetry and was short-listed for the Forward Prize for best first book. Ricantations (Peepal Tree, 2018) was a British Poetry Book Society Summer Recommendation