Nia Long has portrayed a variety of characters throughout the 20-plus years that she's graced the big screen. Film audiences first noticed her as the supportive girlfriend in the Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood, and she remained on moviegoers' radar as she lent her talent to Love Jones, The Best Man, Are We There Yet? and more. But it's her recent riveting portrayal as the self-respecting Muslim wife and mother Safiyah Mahdi, in the independent film Mooz-lum, that's garnering attention.
Set against the backdrop of the 9/11 events, Mooz-lum explores the challenges that a young African-American Muslim man, Tariq (Evan Ross), faces as he struggles to balance his strict Muslim upbringing with his new secular college environment. Long's character asserts her independence as she tackles her estranged relationship with her son, Tariq, and husband, Hassan (Roger Guenveur Smith). The film, which also stars Danny Glover and Dorian Missick, is loosely based on the life of its writer and director, Qasim "Q" Basir.
Long recently took the time to discuss her role and encouraging tolerance for Muslims with The Root.
The Root: Safiyah is a dutiful Muslim woman who is the mother of two teenage children and married to a man who rigidly follows Islam. But she's nobody's pushover. What did you do to prepare for this role?
Nia Long: I had a lot of time and several conversations with the director's mother, who gave me insight on the whole religion. … This story is a true story based on the director's life, and she really kind of talked to me about what life was like raising Q and being a mother — and a Muslim mother who doesn't always agree with her husband. [It's] all of the things that you see in the film.
TR: What drew you to this role?
NL: The story is amazing, but also, I was looking for a dramatic piece. I've been doing a lot of comedy stuff, which I absolutely love doing. But I'm an artist, and who wants to paint the same picture every time on the same canvas?
TR: Muslim women are often perceived to be subservient and docile compared with their male counterparts. How has playing Safiyah influenced your perception of women's roles in Islam and how they're treated?
NL: I think it's dangerous to look at every Muslim woman the same and to assume that every experience within the religion is the same, meaning that there are going to be strong and assertive women that are Muslim. There's going to be a more passive woman who just so happens to be a Muslim. There may be a funny, big-personality woman and she's Muslim.
I don't think the religion makes the woman; I think the woman is who she is within the religion. Just like in Christianity or Buddhism, obviously there are certain practices that dictate one's life, but I don't think you can say all Muslim women are a certain way.
TR: How does playing Safiyah differ from your real-life role as mother to your 10-year-old son, Massai?
NL: I don't really like to compare my life as an actress and being my son's mother. My personal life and my professional life are very different, and I try to keep them separate, just because my personal life is so precious to me. But I will say, whether you're playing a mom on-screen or you're in a car pool lane driving your child to school in the morning, there are similarities that are undeniable. And once you're a mother, there are certain things that are instinct. You just have a better understanding of what it means to be a mother.
TR: How do you think this film will impact people's impressions — their tolerance and understanding — about Islam?
NL: Hopefully it will open up dialogue. I think that's the most important thing: that we create dialogue. In talking and communicating, [it's important that we] really share information with one another — because I think that leads to better understanding — and also just kind of [educate] one another in a way that's really honest.
TR: What were some of your challenges in making the film?
NL: Because it's an indie film with a very small budget and very small cast and crew, that's always challenging. But that's also the very thing that makes this project special. When you have all the bells and whistles — you've got the big, fancy catering, you've got the big, fancy car service and the big, fancy trailer — it makes it very comfortable and everybody's making a lot of money.
But that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to end up with a great film. You hope to. I think what's special about this one is that we had none of the bells and whistles. We had to solely rely on our director, the script and the other actors to make a project I think we all feel very proud of.
TR: There has been a grassroots campaign to get more people to come out and see this movie and get it distributed to more theater locations. Why is this film one that people should see?
NL: I would say that [the subject matter is] relevant. Americans are in need of very objective information, and sometimes it's easier to absorb the message through entertainment and through a great story than through the news outlets [where] everything is sensationalized. Not only are you getting information that sort of defies stereotypes, but you're also getting a wonderful story with hopefully good performances. So it's entertaining and informative.
TR: What did you learn from this movie? What did you take away?
NL: I learned a lot about Muslim people and Islam and the dynamics between men and women and their daily practices. I learned there's a tremendous amount of sisterhood among Muslim women, which I thought was really beautiful. I was happy to be a part of the film.