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.
Perhaps this is because the uniqueness of Bashir's story line required so many contexts. Bashir tasks himself with not only teaching acceptance but also demonstrating the negative consequences of ignorance. Enter 9/11. Three-quarters into the film and a tad too late, the Twin Towers fall; Tariq's pious Arab-American roommate, Hamza (Kunal Sharma), is a victim of a hate crime; and Tariq's sister, Taqua (Kimberley Drummond), goes missing.
Somehow the film retains its tension, even as the plot, perhaps unavoidably, is overwhelmed by all of the moral quandaries and personal conflicts. For the most part, though, Bashir offers us a fresh, new perspective. As a young director, he seems unable to resist pulling out all the cinema tricks — flashbacks, didacticism, stock imagery and a closing montage.
But more compelling are his representations of Muslim women, both African American and Arab American, who seem to be the most spiritually fulfilled and socially comfortable characters in the film. Perhaps as an answer to the oversimplified critique of sexism and Islam, Bashir imbues Tariq's mother and sister and his roommate's girlfriend, Iman (Summer Bishil), with freedom and the ability to move easily between the sacred and the secular.
But ultimately, this is a movie about fathers and sons on one hand and forgiveness and finding faith on the other. Mooz-lum is a new twist on the familiar narrative of tolerance. But by the end of the movie, which concludes shortly after the events of 9/11, the viewer gets the sneaking suspicion that Tariq's turn outward to his family and friends might be the best protection he has against a country that is about to turn more and more inward — and where being Muslim American has a whole new set of consequences.
Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, author of the forthcoming Peculiar Citizenship: Slavery and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination and co-founder of the nonprofit organization A Long Walk Home, Inc. Follow her on Twitter.
Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.