Thursday, February 10, 2011

Finding One's Place In A Hateful Habitat

Evan Ross as Tariq in "Mooz-lum", a drama directed by Qasim Basir. 
Louverture Films/Ameena Sky Media/Deep Blue Pictures

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Thursday, February 10, 2011

As balanced and as riveting as Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing", Qasim Basir's outstanding "Mooz-lum" represents well-crafted storytelling and thought-provoking drama.  Set in Michigan just prior to September 11, 2001, the film's title represents the mispronounciation of "Muslim" (proper pronounciation: "Muss-lim") as well as the prejudice and perceptions many in America have about the faith.  The film opens tomorrow in ten U.S. cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C.

Tariq (Evan Ross) has trouble adjusting to a secular life on campus in a Michigan university.  Much of his young life he's been raised in a strict, rigid Muslim household by his father Hassan (Roger Guenveur Smith) and skeptical but committed Muslim mother (Nia Long, excellent here).  Tariq suffers the slings and arrows of adolescence.  Suffocated, trapped between two worlds, he's a "tragic Muslim", as opposed to the "tragic mulatto" role Dorothy Dandridge often occupied in her film heyday.

The strife within Tariq (or "T" as he prefers) is pervasive on campus, with its insensitive dean Quincy Francis (Danny Glover) leading the way, playing a key part in the ill-will on campus.  A Muslim professor of history at the unnamed college also weighs in, and the results are explosive.  Some of the most vivid parts of "Mooz-lum" are conveyed in black and white flashback, especially Tariq's back story, elucidating his psychological tumult.  Mr. Ross does a great job of displaying discomfort and confusion, enduring adolescent dilemmas and the indecision of commitment to his personal faith, in the time of George W. Bush's America, combined with reactions to the fervor, excitement and anger that those variables, plus intolerance, causes.

Within the imbroglio of its human relations "Mooz-lum" asks: Where does Tariq's heart lie?  Where is he most comfortable?  And what of his family, friends, fellow students and teachers?  It's clear there remains much hostility and anti-Muslim bias in America.  Some of the prejudice and pain is inflicted by those you may least expect.  The complex terrain Mr. Basir explores invites many questions and fewer answers.  He balances the myriad portrayals of those outside the Muslim-American community as well as those within it.  These differing character types on all sides within all groups make "Mooz-lum" more potent and sincere than it would be were it designed exclusively as a corrective to Muslim cinematic representations.

We identify with Tariq, a young man in search of a foundation.  We are treated to negative and respectful looks at the Muslim faith, not the dogma or gimmickry of "fundamentalism" that too often resides as a password or byline in the American consciousness.  "The media", which memorably played an indirect part in the ugliness that followed in the U.S. almost ten Septembers ago, has a brief cameo here, but the film's director sends an unmistakable message.  Even more than the often strident, multi-dimensional players in "Mooz-lum", the brief glimpses of a television broadcaster and his captive audience is more unsettling and powerful than anything in "Mooz-lum".

Is the film's resolution of a dramatic moment an expedient one?  Some audiences will be fiercely divided on this question.  I believe that what transpires makes sense within the scheme of the film's journey.  You will instantly know what I refer to when you see the film.  I think those involved in the specific scene do the right thing, but the realism of that crucial outcome represents a larger, more important point Mr. Basir emphasizes.  Deliberation and aforethought require immense courage, even in volatile times. 

There's a constant balkanization and tension between mini-groups: a professor and a dean; Tariq and his father, and the campus life Tariq feels at odds with.  "Mooz-lum" is absorbing and challenging, and one of its strengths lies in the realization that heroes don't often save the day.  Compassion however, is not completely lost on some.

"Mooz-lum" is revolutionary as an American film in its positive approach to the Muslim community in the U.S., so often depicted with stereotypes and in one-dimensional fashion.  Even those films claiming to support or advocate for Muslims, whether they reside in America or the Middle East or elsewhere, have often portrayed Muslim women as docile and subservient.   

If Mo'Nique won the Oscar in 2010 for her unforgettable portrayal of a mother only a mother could love, Ms. Long is a worthy contender for next year's Academy honors as a steadfast woman in a male-oriented environment.  She stands her ground, and is as passionate and abiding a figure as you'll see on screen.  It's a role in which we're unaccustomed to seeing Ms. Long ("The Best Man", "Love Jones"), one she takes on with unabashed confidence and glory.  It's one of the fullest, authentic and compassionate portrayals of a woman I've seen on screen lately.  The scale and care she invests in her character merits Ms. Long a nomination.

"Mooz-lum" may be guilty of one-too many flashbacks, but these blasts from the past engineer our deep compassion for Tariq.  He's not always the most likable or amiable person, but is the most troubled and sympathetic one.  Tariq transcends some of the most trenchant expectations audiences are bound to have about his destination in life, and so does this marvelous, arresting film.

With: Dorian Merrick, Summer Bishil, Kunal Sharma.

"Mooz-lum" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic material and some violent content.  The film's running time is one hour and 35 minutes.  "Mooz-lum" opens tomorrow in ten U.S. cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C.

You can also read this review here on the S.F. Indie Movie Examiner page.

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