The new movie by young film maker, Qasim Basir – Mooz-lum – has been causing quite a stir in both Muslim and non-Muslim circles. Much of this inter-Muslim dialog I have observed online (Facebook for example) has waxed axiomatic around such platitudes as authenticity and morality to whether there should be a sequel to Mooz-lum, where the main character returns to complete his memorization of the Qur’an. As much as Mooz-lum is a signifier of the maturation process taking place within the Muslim community, some of the commentary surrounding it still illustrates how far Muslims have to go. Therefore, this short piece will be as much a review of the review of Mooz-lum, as it is a film review of the movie itself.
I should make it clear that I am familiar with the film maker. We both hail from the same part of Michigan (or thereabouts) and thus, when I discovered a few years ago that Qasim was making this film, I was excited and happy on many levels. In my time teaching at Muslim schools in Michigan, I encountered several Muslim children that were very similar to Tariq’s dilemma (the film’s main character). I was approached on more than one occasion by a Muslim parent instructing me to make their son or daughter a hāfiẓ of Qur’an. Some children came from households where only one parent was Muslim, others from families who “wanted the best” for their children, an Islamic education.
On a personal level I was happy to see Qasim, or “Q” as he is now known, doing something creative with the Muslim community. I was aware, from afar, of the difficulties he was and had gone through with the Muslim community; some of these very same difficulties are the bases Tariq’s (the main character) struggle in Mooz-lum. I was also happy that a Muslim had chosen to engage both themselves and their community as well as the broader society through the arts. There are so few viable Muslim artists and I was happy to see someone taking this route: The narrator’s route. I was also happy to see a film by a Blackamerican artist who wasn’t trying to ride the Tyler Perry wave and produce some 21st Century minstrel show (sorry Perry fans…). There are so few films made by Black artists and not for lack of want, but because studios only wish to financially back such silly movies a la Perry.
I feel Mooz-lum is a good film, short comings withstanding. It has an engaging story (biases for being Muslim recognized), and an engaging cast. Nia Long gives a nuanced and emotional performance in her portrayal of a wife and mother, who struggles to balance so many balls in the air. Roger Guenveur Smith, who plays Hassan, Tariq’s father, also delivers a solid performance as a man who has failed to transition from the time of his youth, a time that molded and defined him, instead hoping to make his son all the things he never achieved. There are so many other nuances to the script that I prefer you to simply go and see it for yourself. What I do want to address here is the method by which some Muslims have critiqued the film, methods that I feel are both juvenile and obtuse.
In specific, I overheard a conversation between two Muslim men who were arguing about the film. The detractor felt that the film was not “authentic”: all of the characters were stereotypes of Muslim archetypes. The brother provided little evidence to back it up. His main objection seemed to be rooted in how Tariq’s character was not believable. It would seem to the brother that no Muslim would have committed the actions that young Tariq did in the movie. I can attest to the number of young Muslims who have struggled with the societal and pop cultural pressures they face upon graduating to adult life. The brother also objected to the absence of Muslim actors. Personally, I felt it lent strength to the quality of the screenplay and direction for non-Muslim actors to portray Muslims in a fairly accurate light. The other question is are such actors a viable option, and should that be a primary concern on the part of the director, who’s main objective is to find capable actors, religious affiliation aside.
Another criticism was that the Mooz-lum portrayed the MSA (Muslim Student Association), a mainly immigrant Muslim organization, in far too favorable of a light. One brother said Mooz-lum depicted the MSA as the savior of Tariq, a Blackamerican Muslim. While I did not get the same impression from the screening, I think this comment shows the mistrust and division currently taking place between immigrant Muslims and Blackamerican Muslims. Often the MSA is seen as an easy target, but in truth, the issue with the MSA is much more nuanced. This past weekend, I spent time talking to students from Yale’s MSA. One young Muslim student bemoaned the absence of African American Muslims in the MSA. But in order to understand that absence, one must look at the overall enrollment and admission of Blackamerican students in college in general, and in the Ivy’s in specific. Blackamerican Muslims are a minority of a minority when it comes to MSA. Currently, I am able to only account for two Blackamerican Muslim students in Penn’s MSA. Is this an immigrant conspiracy or does the issue run deeper.
What I hope to make clear here is not that Mooz-lum is a triumphant movie, beyond the pale of critique, but instead, I hope that Muslims who do critique the movie (and I hope they do), critique it on the level of cinema, and not solely on its ability or capacity as a pro-Islam, propaganda movie. Was the dialog believable? If not, how so? Was the lighting good? The film’s art direction, etc. These are all valid areas for critique, areas which I’m sure that the film’s writer and director would welcome. But to reduce the film down to its ability to propagate Islam is to do it a disservice (not to mention, ironically, prohibiting it from doing just that: A service to Muslims). Mooz-lum has the potential to do so much for the Muslim community through the process of storytelling. For if there is one thing that Muslims in America need desperately, it’s a story, a narrative. I also hope it will serve as a catalyst for other Muslims to tell their stories, be them autobiographical in nature, as in the case of Mooz-lum, or just a story.
Above all, go and see Mooz-lum. See it twice if you can. Take a friend, tell a neighbor. I do feel it’s an important milestone in American Muslim maturity. And to be frank, I pray there is no sequel to Mooz-lum. I hope the sequel is our children, inspired, who go to become huffāẓ of Qur’an. Amin.