Friday, September 09, 2011


Article first published as Mooz-lum on Blogcritics.

In the film Mooz-lum (2010) a family shares a moment of grief. Tightly embracing with bowed heads pressed together while their bodies shake with sobs, it's an image appropriate for the anniversary of 9/11. It is a metaphor for an American moment of national grieving. Given the state of discourse on Islam among some Americans, that the family depicted in the film is Muslim American makes the image all the more arresting.

Mooz-lum, is a film about the formation of religious identity in the crucible of conflicting cultures. It is about a "clash of civilizations" within the heart of a young man named Tariq (Evan Ross) as he navigates a college life of parties, booze and sex on the one hand and Muslim youth and faculty on the other.

Through flashbacks we are introduced to Tariq and his family when he is a child. His young sister, who like him, faces teasing at school, his observant but "liberal" mother (Nia Long) and his "conservative" father (Roger Guenveur Smith). The liberal vs. conservative parenting styles are a source of constant conflict within the family. Tariq's father wants him to express his devotion to Allah in the way that he does. He enrolls him in a Muslim school which becomes the site of critical moments on Tariq's spiritual path. What happens there ultimately explains Tariq's attitude toward Islam as a college student which ranges from ambivalence to aggression.

"What's wrong with you?", his sister demands at one point. The lone Muslim faculty member on campuses wonders, "What's your deal?" This questioning is a theme throughout the film. Like the image of Tariq's family grieving together, this insistent questioning is a timely metaphor for an America trying to make sense of its increasing diversity. Particularly where Muslims fit in (or don't).

The terrorist attacks increase the tensions on screen exponentially. These tensions climax in mob violence on the campus. Courage is tested and students find themselves soaked with blood and tears. Tariq and his sister argue passionately about what Islam is and is not and the source of his inner-conflict is finally revealed to his parents.

Mooz-lum is a film that needed to be made and needs to be seen. It provides an intimate portrait of a Muslim American family in contrast to the parade of horrors that fills the nightly news. Even non-Muslim's may see their spiritual journeys mirrored in Tariq's. Nia Long and Roger Guenveur Smith give touching and powerful performances as Tariq's parents. Evan Ross embodies Tariq's pain and barely restrained rage, his awkwardness and ambivalence effectively. A scene that juxtaposes him reciting Quranic verses while reliving soul-crushing events at the Muslim school is one of the best. The always compelling Summer Bishil is fierce as a fellow Muslim student. As Tariq's sister suggests they should take off their head scarfs in the face of approaching danger, her response seems to give voice to Muslim women throughout the West who are harassed and worse for daring to wear the hijab.

For all its strengths, this is also a film where opportunities were missed. An unfortunate aspect of the film is its portrayal of Tariq's father. While it manages to avoid presenting him as a monster (it leaves that role to another character) it suggests that being devoted to one's faith is rigid or backward. His mother, who is portrayed as being more compassionate about her kid's struggle to fit into the wider world comes across as the "good Muslim".

A related and troubling aspect of the film is its explanation for Tariq's rejecting Islam. It would have been enough to have it involve disagreements with his father's version of Islam or even estrangement related to how this impacted their relationship. Instead the film insists on injecting an unnecessary trauma at his Muslim school into the story. Ironically, this may perpetuate stereotypes the film as a whole is attempting to critique.

'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith (1892-1921) wrote, "See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness." While Mooz-lum is not a perfect film, it offers an opportunity for viewers to see Muslims as neighbors rather than "others". For that alone it deserves a viewing. May it prove to be one of many films that seek to humanize Muslim Americans in these times that test the character of our country.