Gravitas Ventures brings everyone a curious Christmas present this December 25th with Brown Girl Begins coming to DVD and Blu-Ray. A prequel to Brown Girl in the Ring, that is the Nalo Hopkinson novel published by Warner Aspect in 1998, not the 1979 Boney M song, Sharon Lewis (Karma’s a Bitch! 2013, See Me Now 2016) spent years trying to adapt the novel before settling on preceding it with an original tale. Here, Canada and the Caribbean clash in a dystopia where urban squalor meets Jamaican folklore.
Brown Girl Begins concerns Ti-Jeanne (Mouna Traoré: Murdoch Mysteries series, In Contempt series), the granddaughter of a priestess. She and her grandmother Mami (Shakura S’Aida: Flashpoint 2008, Schitt’s Creek series) live in the Burn, a segregated island outside the walled-off city of Toronto in 2049. Mami wants her to take part in a possession ritual, but Ti-Jeanne wants no part in it after her mother (Keeya King: The Handmaid’s Tale series, Jigsaw 2017) died during one when she was young. Instead, she just wants to escape the spirits and the Burn with her lover Tony (Emmanuel Kabongo: Ransom 2017, 21 Thunder 2017), though when a woman called Crack (Rachael Crawford: When Night is Falling 1995, Alphas series) starts hunting down Burn dwellers to sell as slaves, Ti-Jeanne may have no choice but to accept her otherworldly powers and lead the people to safety.
This could be a rare treat- a film by a female writer/director and fronted by a black woman. It is not often that one or the other gets much notice, let alone together – not without some extra work on top usually. The original book has been cited as part of the Afrofuturist movement, which audiences got a taste of via the MCU with 2018 Black Panther. Brown Girl Begins was shot before that film, crossing 2015 into 2016, before popping up at festivals in 2017. But does it hold up? Should the Brown Girl go on or should she have stopped before she started?
It is perhaps unfair to compare its production values to that of an MCU film. Black Panther looks better, but then it is part of a decade-old machine of superhero flicks that swallows money and (for the most part) doubles it. Brown Girl Begins has humbler origins, and a humbler budget, and looks cheaper as a result; less blockbuster cinema and more direct-to-TV, though it looks kind of cheap by those standards too.
This is quite a worry when the story is combining sci-fi and magic elements- two things that require either a lot of care or a lot of cash. Its costume design is fair for the normal characters- the heroes, villains, and even the weird revellers. Though the paranormal ones, like Mama Ache (Measha Brueggergosman: One Heart Broken into Song 1999, Infinite Dream 2006) and Papa Legba (Nigel Shawn Williams: John Q 2002, The Jane Show series), do not work as well. They come off less mystical and more fit for Halloween, though this may be better than doing them up in CG. The CG on offer is used more sparingly- magic effects, Toronto’s wall, etc. So, there are no scenes of Ti-Jeanne being chased by something that escaped from 1994’s ReBoot series – just Williams in blue body paint.
Good direction could help emphasize the positives over the negatives, though what is on offer here is more C-grade – maybe C+. Basically, the more straightforward a scene is, the finer it looks. Ti-Jeanne talking to her grandmother, Tony or Legba; perfectly fine. The lengthy expository intro and the possession rituals: less fine. The former tells instead of shows, and the latter comes off as silly rather than climactic. Still, the camerawork comes off as competent, working in some nice angles and cuts alongside the wonky ones. It is enough for the audience to follow the story without a struggle.
The gist of the plot is clear and concise- a reluctant hero realizes their true calling. All rather ‘Hero’s Journey’-esque. It helps that Lewis had Hopkinson’s book to work from, though the writing is mostly fair. The story runs at a fair pace and, while some scenes appear to be surprisingly convenient, they do not come off as unnatural. It does not take leaps of logic, so much as skips of sensibleness to suspend one’s disbelief. That is at least until the audience gets hit by some of the lumpier chunks of dialogue, though they might have worked better if the acting was more on-point.
That is not to say it is bad, as the cast are largely okay for most of their scenes. Traoré and S’Aida have good chemistry as grandmother and granddaughter. Likewise, Traoré and Kabongo make a cute couple for their characters’ burgeoning romance. But there are parts where the mask slips and the cast sound and act clunky. The best of the bunch would be Williams, who does triple-duty in playing two other roles (Jab-Jab and Brukfoot Sam) alongside Papa Legba. He plays each part distinctly, while managing to say as much with his expressions as well as his words. Particularly when he, as Legba, confronts Traoré’s Ti-Jeanne for the first time.
Overall, Brown Girl Begins casts a spell that is not as effective as it should be. At its strongest, the protagonists are endearing and well-acted in a story that is a fine precis to Hopkinson’s novel. Then the illusion is broken by the cheap production, duff dialogue and other trips and slips. It has plenty of heart and goodwill, but those faults keep it from realizing its full potential. However, the film’s sweet spots do elevate it, if only by a touch. Sterner hearts can translate that touch to at least half a star and knock it off. But, as far as Cryptic Rock goes, this film gets 3 out of 5 stars.