Mooz-lum, a thoughtful new drama written and directed by first-timer Qasim “Q” Basir, manages to dress the age-old story of father-and-son conflict in new garb. It opens with a warm scene between an African-American Muslim father, Hassan (Roger Guenveur Smith), and his son, Tariq (Evan Ross), in prayer, but that domestic tranquillity is quickly lost. As Tariq drives off to college, we realize that he longs to leave his father’s religious rituals behind, as he throws his kufi — his last symbolic connection to his father, and therefore Islam — out the window.
Before we can understand why Tariq, who insists at college that his new name is “T,” refuses his father’s doctrine of being a good Muslim, the film teaches us what it means to be Muslim, black and a man in pre-9/11 America. Through a series of flashbacks, we are transported to various stages of Tariq’s life: him hiding his kufi at his public middle school; his father’s unilateral choice to send him to a school for Muslim boys so that he can become a hafiz, a person who has memorized the entire Quran; his parents’ divorce because of his father’s religious dogma; and the reluctance of his mother, Safiyah (wonderfully played by Nia Long), to let him leave for boarding school.
Unfortunately for Tariq, although Safiyah breaks free from Hassan’s domineering spirit, she cannot or will not rescue her son. She sadly tells the young Tariq, “You need a man in your life in order to become one.” In this sense, Mooz-lum pays homage to the more recent film Traitor, starring Don Cheadle, and Spike Lee’s 1992 classic, Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington (and Roger Guenveur Smith). The central conflict of the three films is a deeply personal one: How do African-American men, already cultural outsiders, live in America as good Muslims, too?
But that is where the similarities stop, because Mooz-lum is also a movie about community. The most popular professor at Tariq’s college, which is set in Michigan, home to the second-largest Arab population outside the Middle East, is an African-American Muslim, Professor Jamal (Dorian Missick), who teaches a course on world religions.
Part mentor, part teacher, Professor Jamal offers Tariq (and us, for that matter) a more favorable image of religious tolerance and faith. He is the foil not only to Hassan but also to Dean Francis (Danny Glover), who is prone to making insensitive remarks about Islam, including mistakenly calling people “mooz-lum,” and whose dogma about fundraising seems to rival that of any religious or racist zealot in the movie.
Dogma, religious or social, seems to be the ultimate villain in this film. The movie sometimes suggests too easy an equivalence — or, rather, moral symmetry — between Muslims who use intimidation to inspire fellow Muslims to be more devoted to their faith and those who threaten Muslim Americans for being different.