Written by: NADINE MATTHEWS
Never give up on your dreams, especially if it’s to make a film. Sharon Lewis was a struggling actress browsing the shelves in a Los Angeles bookstore in 1998 when Nalo Hopkinson’s just published “Brown Girl in the Ring” caught her eye.
Familiar with the author from her hometown of Toronto, she said, “I opened it up and I read it, and from that moment, I was on a mission to make it into a film. I literally pursued it from then until now, 2017.”
The road to completion was a rocky one, with Lewis coming up against much resistance. With the release of “Black Panther” on the horizon, it is incredible to consider the reception Lewis repeatedly got from film executives at the time. She related, “The answer was always, ‘We don’t make Black sci-fi.’ There were a lot of nos.”
She said, “I finally I got a little bit of money from the Arts Council in Canada, and I thought I can either make this film and it will be a small film, or I can wait again until I get a big enough budget to make a proper sci-fi film.”
She decided she did not have to wait any longer if she was a bit resourceful. “I decided to make the prequel to the book, and make it a coming of age story set in a dystopian world,” she explained. “It’s a smaller story, but it would still allow me to tell the story of a young Black woman of Caribbean background who saved us.” That film, “Brown Girl Begins,” will screen at this year’s Urbanworld Film Festival, which runs Sept. 20 to Sept. 24 in Manhattan, showcasing more than 80 films by a diverse slate of creators, most hailing from the African Diaspora.
A Toronto resident of Jamaican and Trinidadian extraction, Lewis spent the latter part of her youth in Trinidad. What drew her to tell this story and to the Afrofuturism genre overall is a desire to see Blacks represented in tales of the future world. She explained, “I feel like I grew up hearing about Black history all the time, but I never saw us in the future. I never saw us represented in the future or what our role will be in the future.”
She references the extremely popular Hulu program, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” pointing out that there is just one Black character in that rendering of the future. “Is that our future?” she asked. “Like, there’s only one of us? I have a son and I want my son to know that he also exists in the future.”
“Brown Girl Begins” is set in the future—2049—when the poor have been exiled to a forsaken island community off the mainland. Deprived of resources, the community begins to disintegrate. Things get worse when a predator begins to torture the residents and to make them ready for sale as “smart slaves” to the mainland. It is up to the teen protagonist to overcome her fears and save her community.
Lewis’ point of view as a Black woman raised in Canada and the West Indies, who also lived in the United States for significant periods of time, heavily informs her work. She said, “I lived in LA for seven years and think that the stark difference between Los Angeles and Toronto is that downtown Toronto is a lot like New York City. It isn’t as segregated. When I went to LA, I was shocked that there were actual Black areas, Latino areas, Korean areas, and white areas and that they were very distinct.”
She is particularly attuned to the way the larger society changes its perception of what is “Black culture” from one geographical area to another. “When Black is defined in America, it’s African-American culture,” she said. “Here in Toronto, for us it’s Caribbean. That is the predominant definition of Black. I grew up identifying as Caribbean as opposed to African-Canadian because our music, our culture, our food is everywhere and it influences the mainstream here in a way that it doesn’t in America.” That point of view is evident in “Brown Girl Begins,” in which the protagonist and most of the characters are of Caribbean descent, and the film, although set in North America, hums with the Caribbean vernacular and culture.
It’s surprising to hear Lewis say she never considered herself a sci-fi fan. Rather, she was more inspired by people such as feminist writer Audre Lorde, American author Toni Morrison, Jamaican-Canadian novelist Olive Senior, Indo-Caribbean writer Ramabai Espinet and “Nalo Hopkinson of course.” She elaborated, “I read a lot of Black women writers from the Caribbean and America, and I think that has informed a lot of why I wanted to tell my story. It’s also why I thought I could tell my story and why it was worth it.”
With regard to “Brown Girl in the Ring,” she explained, “What drew me about that book was here was an entire book about Caribbean people, not just existing in the future, but saving us as a society. And not only that, led by a young Black woman. It made me cry.”
She added, ”I love dystopian film and I love dystopian fiction and I hungered to see myself in the future.”
The bottom line for Lewis is that although she has a great appreciation and sees the necessity of telling stories of the past, what holds the biggest pull for her is the hope of the future. “That’s great that you love to portray us in history and that everybody celebrates Black History Month,” she said. “But that sharing and experience comes from a shared history of oppression. What I want and what I think Afro-futurism wants is to say yes, but we also exist in the future and we’re doing some kick-ass things right now. We are the agents of our own change.”