“I was always looking for someone who looked like me, as one does,” says Zoe Renee, the morning after her big-screen debut, “Jinn,” had its premiere at SXSW. The 20-year-old actress, up early and seated outside at Austin favorite Jo’s Coffee, is rattling off her acting icons growing up (Raven Symone and Keke Palmer), as well as the women in the industry today (Yara Shahidi, Ava DuVernay, Gina Rodriguez, Viola Davis) who encourage her to pursue the dream of acting, who make her feel seen.
The role in “Jinn” is likely to have her name on such a list for many a young woman. “Jinn” is the coming-of-age story of Summer, a 17-year-old high school senior in Los Angeles whose life is thrown upside down by her mother’s sudden decision to convert to Islam. Summer’s story is one of identity, of family, and of first love, as seen through the eyes of a young women likened to the Arabic term “jinn,” a shape-shifter.
The film premiered in the Narrative Feature Competition at the festival, where it was one of the eight out of 10 features from a female director (and where it was awarded a Special Recognition for Writing). Writer and director Nijla Mu’min based the story off her own experience of growing up in the Bay Area with a Muslim father. As she told the audience at the film’s SXSW premiere, she’s long been wanting to give a voice to the African-American Muslim experience, one that sees little representation in film.
Renee herself is not Muslim; neither were the majority of the cast. Yet for her character’s authenticity, that worked to her benefit.
“My character Summer was going into it really fresh as well. Honestly, it was really cool because we were both learning about it at the same time,” she explains of her character research process. “It was kind of a process of ‘OK, what does it mean to change your name, how do you do that? Or ‘How does a teenage girl feel when her mom is completely changing her entire life; how she works, what she wears?’ There are so many terms — it’s a completely different language. So learning that was interesting. But Summer was learning the same things. It was a cool process of learning with her.”
Renee has one previous acting credit to her name — the BET series “The Quad” — and was in Austin at SXSW for the first time. “My manager sent me the script and she was like ‘we don’t have a budget, but the story is beautiful.’ I had told her at the beginning of the year ‘I just really want to do stories that matter, and stories that represent people who aren’t being represented enough,’” Renee says. “I knew that I wanted to be part of something like this, so that I could go to festivals like this where there’s creative people around, where there are people who are really trying to tell stories and trying to represent.”
She grew up with her parents and brother 30 minutes south of Atlanta on a farm, and has wanted to be a performer since childhood, as she watched the joy her father, the frontman of conscious hip-hop group Arrested Development, brought to people through his music.
“My parents are always traveling, so I was always with them, kind of seeing the world but also seeing cows and chickens. So the contradictions were a lot,” she says. “I saw my dad perform and I was like ‘This is really cool that he’s able to make people feel some type of way.’ I remember being in Japan with my dad and seeing that they didn’t understand a word he was saying, but he was still making them have fun. I want to be able to make people feel that.”
Her father also set an example for the types of messages she wants now to spread to people through her work.
“It was very cool to grow up with a dad who created music that didn’t degrade people, that didn’t hurt anybody,” Renee says. “As I’m growing into a young woman I’m able to see ‘OK, that’s how a man should talk to a woman.’ It was very awesome — and I’m just realizing it as I’m getting older. Like ‘Dad, OK, you might’ve been speaking some truth.’”
Fitting, then, that her first foray into the festival circuit is in the name of one such film.
“‘Jinn’ is Nijla Mu’min’s chance to put out a story of inclusivity, to put out a story of tolerance and love. Black, white, anything, I think it’s something anybody can relate to,” Renee says. “It’s first love: it’s that time when you’re just questioning everything.”