The Return of Religion

Review of Jinn (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

It is refreshing to see well-developed African-American characters in a narrative, and this story is one of the best in avoiding stereotypes. Not surprisingly, Jinn is written and produced by a group of emerging Black filmmakers in the U.S. What adds to the quality of this film is that the narrative provides a refreshing take on the troubled encounters the whole world seems to have with religion these days.

Many young people in our post-modern society represent a second generation (or more) of people living their whole lives unchurched. Certainly, after a generation or two growing up without religious traditions, these descendants must find the idea of returning to a religious lifestyle quite strange. It is fascinating to consider why, after decades of freeing their minds (and bodies) from religion, we find people now eager to submit themselves to the restrictions of the most strict of religious practices. Such a leap of faith is portrayed as genuinely fulfilling for the characters in this story. What makes Jinn stand out is that it unfolds in the context of Islam.

Jade, a divorced mother (Simone Missick), is a television personality in Los Angeles. After years of drifting, she has taken a leap in her decision to identify herself as Muslim. What is particularly significant is that such a decision is considered irrevocable in the religion—backsliders are branded apostates. Not only do they fail themselves, one would insult the religion and the prophet Mohammed if they changed their mind. In fact, apostasy is considered a crime in some parts of the world.

Obviously, one can see the potential conflicts in a situation where people who jump from one fad to the next find themselves confronted with the possibility of taking one final leap. While people will mark their bodies with a tattoo that will last a lifetime, this same permanency is seldom applied to relationships—with each other, as in a marriage, but also those between a person and a god or a religious way of life.

The film becomes even more interesting when the point of view shifts to Jade’s daughter Summer (Zoe Renee). The girl is a typical teenager living in the city—she enjoys sexy fashion and expressive dance. She is fully religious in only her social media practice; she knows almost nothing about Islam. When she agrees to follow her mother into the faith, the depths of the commitment only come upon her gradually. She reaches a point where she can no longer live in both worlds at the same time.

The title Jinn comes from para-supernatural beings described in Islam (or at least in this film) as being created by smokeless fire (light). They can be mistaken as human—those who are created from clay. These creatures have the ability to bring a fire that will scorch the world around them, or they can bring a fire that simply warms life. Summer is convinced that she is Jinn, seeing herself as providing the warming light of love that must transcend the limitations of religion.

Refreshing on so many levels, the religious theme will be relevant to any faith tradition. Shape-shifting adults often struggle with their personal commitments as they also consider what religious legacy they hope their children and grandchildren will embrace.

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