Hmmm…I remember when I heard the title of the movie, Mooz-lum. It made me cringe, just like when I hear its alternative, Moslem, mispronounced by non-Muslims to the point of putting a muzzle on it. I thought to myself, what original negative portrayal of Islam does this movie offer?
But then I found out that it’s the premier work of a Muslim director, Qasim “Q” Basir, and most of my trusted friends on Facebook were suggesting the page to me. One thing led to another and before you knew it, I was demanding the movie on my blog and urging others to do so. It finally arrived in town this past weekend, and we organized an extended family trip to see it.
The movie was riveting, to say the least. The actors portrayed their characters so well that I believe my bones were rattling at times. But on the other hand, I was also a tad disappointed. While the intrinsic cultural value of this movie cannot be denied in offering a rare view into the complexities that many Muslim Americans face, Mooz-lum suffers in aspects of its direction and storyline. To put it simply, we wanted more meat and the movie only began to hit the brink of wetting the flesh.
While I cannot critique the story in and of itself, which seems personal and autobiographical of the director’s own life, I can critique its direction and conception on film. The story is basically about a nuclear African-American Muslim family in Michigan on the verge of destruction. The story centers on the evolution of its main character, Tariq a.k.a. “T” (Evan Ross), who is caught between the extremes of two seemingly polar worlds–that of Muslims and non-Muslims. At the heart of the struggle for Tariq is his father’s non-negotiable interpretation of Islam and a slew of bad-examples-of-Muslims that no child should ever meet. Add to the list the ignorance and prejudice that Tariq encounters at the hands of non-Muslims, and you have one severely abused and crippled Muslim child. To make matters worse, Tariq’s father, Hassan Mahdi (Roger Guenveur Smith), refuses to talk about the problems that his family members face. He never sees any problems—except those threatening his own desires, of course. He sees the world as white and black–with me or against me—and is the archetype of the Muslim who lacks balance and moderation. His inability or unwillingness to bend to the needs of his family ultimately pushes his wife, Safiyah (Nia Long) and his daughter, Taqua (Kimberley Drummond), out the door, leaving Tariq to brave a very strong-willed man bent on molding Tariq into a hafiz caricature of himself. So by the time we as viewers first meet Tariq, he is one hurt, confused, and angry young man who doesn’t want anything to do with Islam.
Enter college life. Hormones, parties, alcohol, gurlzzzz…you know the drill. All the evils of the world nest in college life for a young, confused Muslim, right? Tariq doesn’t know who he is—he is trying to sort out who he wants to be. He’s experimenting. But college does offer a few positives. A caring Muslim roommate. The chance to rekindle ties of kinship with Taqua again. And a class–World Religions 101–taught by a very likeable and good example of a Muslim, who is the foil to Hassan’s iron. Actually, this Muslim professor (Dorian Missick) is battling prejudices of his own at the hands of the Dean (Danny Glover), who believes all mooz-lums are hell-bent on conversion and terrorism.
Enter 9/11. Of course the T-word had to enter the plot. But can we have a Muslim story that doesn’t mention 9/11, please? Apparently not. It’s vital to the story I tell you—remember, this is personal—and now Tariq really doesn’t want anything to do with Islam. But the practicing Muslim characters around him necessarily draw him back in—his sister goes missing and his roommate is attacked. Abuse enters Tariq’s life again…at the hands of the other. 9/11 is the catalyst to get not only Tariq, but his whole family talking again…as it was for many Muslim Americans.
But I must stop here or else this review is going to turn into a spoiler. I didn’t give away too much yet, did I? But now that I’m looking back at over my words, I realize that what bothered me most about this film were actually pet-peeves. For instance, Safiyah, Tariq’s mom, was always seen with hijab—even in the house. Now you know, Muslim women out there, most of us can’t wait to take off our hijabs when we enter our domestic domain. So why wasn’t Nia Long also instructed to do so? Most non-Muslims think we cover our heads all the time, even if we somehow manage to change our hijab color daily…Another pet-peeve was some Muslim characters’ pronunciations of Arabic words. Even when Muslims don’t come from an Arabic-speaking background, we just say things differently. You feel me? When you hear “Allah” said by a Muslim—American or otherwise, it flows. Somehow with non-Muslims though, there is this foreignness that comes through. I believe the actors could have been directed more linguistically to come across as authentic Muslims. And…when Tariq’s character recites the Qur’an with such a surprised reaction from other Muslims, you’d think he was reciting Surah Baqarah like Sa’ad al Ghamdi, but it was that same linguistic clog to blame. A voice over or better linguistic instruction would have made much more of an impression. But now for more highlights…
Evan Ross does an outstanding job of playing Tariq’s angry character. He keeps the tension in the plot. He is seething with anger…and you can feel his tension whenever he enters the screenshot. Smiles don’t come easy to this kid, and I will forever remember the one time I saw his character attempt to crack a smile.
On a lighter note, one of my favorite parts is when Tariq replies to his South Asian roommate’s parents’ “secret” conversation about him in his presence in Urdu. Too many times people (er…black and white American Muslims) are spoken about in other languages right in front of their faces, as it they’d never be able to understand. Tariq’s character made me proud—demonstrating the acculturation that takes place on the American Muslim melting pot scene. Lesson here: Bollywood rubs off on everyone.
And even better are Qasim’s representations of Muslim women, all of whom no matter their ethnicity seem to have it made and know what they want. They are strong and more like the real Muslim women you’d meet everyday. As reviewer Salamishah Tillet put it, these Muslim women “seem to be the most spiritually fulfilled and socially comfortable characters in the film”. We need more positive, well-rounded, and authentic examples of Muslim women in the film industry. Oh, and I almost forgot, another kudos to Qasim for having a non-Muslim female character who isn’t about sex, alcohol, and the dating scene. Too many Muslims forget that we were all born with a fitra.
And for some final thoughts…While it’s painful to see Tariq wavering between two identities and making the wrong choices in this drama, this is important to see, especially for parents. This is exactly where many young Muslims find themselves when they enter college. This is reality. Hats off here to Qasim–he shows the vital role the MSA plays in bringing lost kids back and offers a lesson to parents to strive to be moderate and balanced. Kids don’t always experience Islam the way that parents do or expect them to.
Was the movie predictable? Yes…but I was surprised a few times. Does it deserve a looksie? Yes! We must demand independent films like this for our voices to be heard…for different voices to be heard. This movie is important and ground-breaking in its difference alone. What disappointed me most about this film is that I wanted more…more than was offered in the one hour and forty-minutes of my life that I spent at the movie theater. To the director, Qasim, you have a lot of potential, and we, your anxious viewers, are waiting to see what you’ll craft up next.
Mooz-lum is now playing in select cities until February 20, 2011. Why haven’t you seen a commercial? Well, this movie is spreading by word of mouth and the internet. Demand it in your city or check it out at a select city nearby: http://moozlumthemovie.com/moozlum/