In the realm of filmmaking and screenwriting, the journey from spectator to creator is often ignited by moments of cinematic magic. For Nijla Mu’min, the spark was ignited by the emotionally charged narrative of Malcolm X, viewed as a child at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. This early encounter with storytelling’s transformative power left a mark, a prelude to Mu’min’s dedication to creating narratives that illuminate the complexity of the human experience. From those humble beginnings to her recent directorial venture into the compelling world of Swagger, Mu’min’s artistic trajectory is a testament to the enduring allure of love, truth, and vulnerability. Mu’min gives Taji Mag an exploration of her creative process for Swagger and her thoughts about the current writers’ and actors’ strike.
Dapper Dr Feel (DDF): When did you fall in love with filmmaking and screenwriting?
Nijla Mu’min (NM): I fell in love with filmmaking, maybe more indirectly, when I saw Malcolm X as a kid. My father took me to this theater in Oakland called Grand Lake Theater, and I was just immersed in that story. I grew up Muslim also, so it had an importance to me and I saw how the audience was really responding to the movie emotionally. I just knew at that point “I wanna have that impact on people”. Then later in life, when I was at UC Berkeley, I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was immersed in poetry, film, and photography, I wanted to take it a step further. So I started making my own short films, short documentaries, and I wanted to highlight the interior lives of Black women and Black girls, giving us a space just to be ourselves. And that’s really what became my life mission when I was a college student.
DDF: So how did you get involved with directing season two, episode six of Swagger?
NM: So, Swagger came about after my feature film Jinn, which is a coming-of-age story about a Black Muslim teenage girl discovering life and love. The showrunner of Swagger, Reggie Rock Bythewood, saw my film, Jinn, and he really loved it and asked me to be a part of the show. And from there, I just grew to love the show. It was like a family. I learned so much, and I love basketball, but I’m not a basketball player. I was in the room with lots of former basketball players and athletes. I wrote and directed an episode for season one (episode 6, “All on the Line). For season two, I directed the “Jace +Crystal” episode, and it was such a beautiful experience.
DDF: What was your approach to the “Jace +Crystal” episode?
NM: I knew going in that this was the love episode, and I am a lover. I love directing love, romance, and relationships. That is, I think if I had a brand, a lot of my work would be about relationships and about falling in love or family members loving each other. So I really came in with that passion. When I got the script, it was so beautifully written by Steve DiUbaldo and Autumn Joy Jimerson. I studied the script, and I just found all of the moments where I could insert my voice. I also developed a relationship with the actors.
This episode had a lot of intimacy and romance. So building trust between myself, Quvenzhané, and Isaiah was really important. We had an intimacy coordinator, and we really talked about the scenes. I was there for them throughout the process and building off their chemistry.
They have a very natural, exciting chemistry. So I said, “Okay, I want to work to really just build their chemistry and use everything that they have as actors to our advantage, which is what we did. I think it really came out beautifully. The shots we did were all about complimenting this relationship that had grown over the course of the two seasons.
DDF: How could you balance out the flashbacks and the current events in this episode?
NM: I really looked at this episode with the theme of vulnerability. And I said what it means to be vulnerable and to stand in your truth. Those themes are carried out in every scene because when the main character, Jace, has his teammates stand in their truth and say, “I’m not going to apologize, and I’m gonna be vulnerable. No matter what happens to me, I’m standing in my truth.” And even the relationship between Jace and Crystal was about this theme of “This is my truth. I love you, and I will show a side of myself that I may not show.”
And I think that is what helped me gel together everything. The whole episode was about truth, vulnerability, and love. Even in the scene with Tanya and Emery going back and forth, she’s like, “I’m going to stand in my truth”. And he’s also coming from what he knows. I thought it was important to really keep reminding myself this is what we’re trying to do. It was about Black women and girls feeling seen. You see a young Black woman named V who feels invisible and needs to talk to someone, so she goes to Tanya. So it was just a lot of that, speaking your truth into power and being vulnerable to love.
DDF: What parallels can you make between what’s going on with the strike and the episode “Jace +Crystal” that you directed?
NM: I think we could, as people, see the love, truth, and vulnerability of humanity more instead of trying to see people as commodities, which I think is an issue with the strike right now.
It’s like seeing writers in their craft as just some content you can quickly buy and not fairly compensate as a human being. I just think we need more humanity in this industry. We need to love and understand that these are people with lives and families that really are trying to survive here. It’s not a game. So I think that’s what this episode also encourages people to do. Like the relationship between Jace and Crystal, it’s a lifelong bond. Even the scene with them at the end, that’s a life journey they’ve been on. I didn’t want to cheapen it in any way.
Like I wanted to really show the power of love, so I think if we get more of that in our industry where we care about the well-being of others, our lives would be better.
In a world where industry dynamics can sometimes overshadow the human element, Mu’min’s episode serves as a poignant reminder of the humanity that underscores every creation. Just as Jace and Crystal embark on a lifelong bond, Mu’min invites us all to forge a deeper connection with the stories, struggles, and triumphs that shape our world.
Watch Swagger on AppleTV+ and Jinn on Tubi.