Film Review: Naz & Maalik

 

Naz: “You think the world’s getting better?”

Maalik: “Yeah.”

Naz: “Mmm. I don’t think so. Change gets too much credit. They confuse it with progress. They don’t even realize the truth”

“Naz & Maalik” is a film that was released January 26th featuring two black, gay, Muslim teenage boys living in Brooklyn. The film, written and directed by Jay Dockendorf, is based upon interviews Dockendorf conducted with actual youth living at the intersections of these identities.

The film is groundbreaking in that it portrays a group of people that is never visible within popular media. Sure, there has been an increase in shows and movies featuring lesbian and gay characters. But the vast majority of these are white. Occasionally there will be a nod towards someone who happens to be gay and a person of color. Or gay and living a religious lifestyle (such as “Trembling Before G-d”). But gay, POC, and Muslim? Forget it.

Which is part of what makes this film so unique. “Naz & Maalik” explores and makes visible the experiences of a group who most Americans probably have little to no idea even existed. So to see them making a splash is refreshing.

The main issue that seems to arise, is in the subplot involving a government agent who suspects the boys of terrorist activities. The Huffington Post referred to this addition as “ridiculous” and “poorly-scripted”.

I agree that the writing of the scenes involving law enforcement left much to be desired. The involvement of the FBI agent and her NYCPD associate and their focus on the two boys did not make a lot of sense. Her interest in their love story seemed very out of place. But one aspect of their involvement very much hit home. The cop meets up with the agent after attempting to sell the boys a gun, claiming that they almost bought it from him. She says that it doesn’t sound like a lead- until she sees the boys, and decides to trail them for the vast majority of the film. The implication here is that she sees that they are black and decides that they are dangerous.

The writing and acting in the scenes is awkward, but the inclusion of the relationship between (white) law enforcement and black youth like Naz and Maalik is unfortunately all too real.

The same can be said for the rich white man who invites Naz into his expensive loft, obviously hoping to hook up. His interest in Naz is less than genuine; he is clearly painted as someone who fetishizes cultural difference. “New York City, it’s like a Mecca for meeting new people, hmm?”. A funny choice of words, given the Kufi on Naz’s head.

The Huffington Post reviewers have noted that the film would have made more of an impact if it had stuck to the love story between the two main boys and the issue that they face within their (homophobic) families, and scrapped the FBI subplot. Hollywoodreporter.com calls it a “shaky attempt at dramatic incident”. Variety.com claims that the film has potential, which it squanders on an “innocuously blase hangout narrative”.

Perhaps the director was attempting to show that kids like Naz and Maalik face accusations of terrorism from the federal government because of their religious affiliation, and potential discrimination from police based on their race. An honorable goal, but not one achieved gracefully in the film.
While I am in agreement with The Huffington Post that this FBI/NYCPD subplot was heavy-handed and could have been incorporated more smoothly into the film, it illustrated the fact that groups affected by multiple sites of oppression don’t often have the luxury of focusing solely on issues of coming out. As Sheri Linden with Hollywood Reporter notes, the references to government spying definitely convey the atmosphere of “intrusive monitoring”. People like Naz and Maalik do have to worry about what their families might think of their sexuality, it’s true, but they also have to constantly watch their backs for mistreatment at the hands of police. Issues of group cohesion are much more critical for tight-knit minority communities; being disowned from one’s family can mean being rejected from the entire community that one has grown up in. And if you are constantly suspected of criminal or terrorist activity from those outside the community, you might have nowhere to go.

Focusing solely on the struggles with homophobia within the boys’ families, as other reviewers have suggested, would be be problematic for another reason as well. This would run the risk of creating further tension between an imagined progressive (white) majority, and a regressive, homophobic (Muslim and/or black) minority. Only looking at this aspect of the boys’ lives would erase a large portion of their identities, and ignore the massive amount of discrimination that they face from outside of their community.

As Naz notes, change is not the same thing as progress.

The situation has changed for lesbians and gays in the US, but that does not mean that progress has been achieved for all. Especially if this notion of “progress for gays” is being used as a rallying point against people of color and religious minorities.

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Feminism and Alcoholism

I recently heard a paper at the SEWSA entitled that purported to focus on the intersectionality of feminism and alcoholism. I was intrigued, and had high hopes. The beginning of the presentation shed light on the true nature of alcoholism, emphasizing that it is a medical condition rather than merely a lack of will-power. The presenter then discussed similarities between rape culture and substance abuse, victim blaming, and the stigma attached to the labels “feminist” and “alcoholic”.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, I felt as though the paper did not meet its full potential. The presenter stated that she had attended a few AA (alcoholics anonymous) meetings with her newly sober partner, and had had her “feminist alarms” go off. Essentially, she was struck by the use of the term “him” in the 12 steps and 12 traditions of AA to refer to God or a higher power.

For her, this meant that AA was patriarchal.

Additionally, she saw the emphasis on anonymity as encouraging a continuation of the stigma and preventing individuals from self identifying.

In the AA literature (such as in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,  the supplemental text to the basic AA book) there is a great deal of discussion surrounding this foundational principle. The original intention is to prevent power imbalances (based on identity or occupation outside of the AA rooms) and give individuals who attend the meetings an opportunity to de-center the self. It is my opinion that many AA’s would see this encouragement of anonymity not as increasing stigma that perpetuates the patriarchal and ableist status quo, but instead as an opportunity to attempt to disrupt and provide an alternative to the power imbalances that exist outside of the AA rooms.

The principle of anonymity refers not simply to keeping one’s status as a recovering alcoholic quiet in the “real world”, but additionally to the attempt to keep recovery the sole purpose of AA.

Sure, power imbalances from the outside world are going to sneak in. After all, if you are a white man who is used to speaking over others, that is not going to change just because you walk into an AA meeting. AA is a microcosm of the wider society, so problematic relations between individuals are guaranteed to occur. I am not trying to argue that AA is a perfect utopian society.

I was astounded by the lack of critical inquiry that seemed to go into this paper. The presenter advocated for self-disclosure and the telling of one’s own story (which is one of the critiques she had about anonymity), yet it appeared as though she had not actually talked to any members of AA outside of her husband. She claimed that it was an oppressive structure because the founders had been two men, and the text referred to God as a male. I think that if she had spent more time interviewing and talking with individuals (especially minorities) who had been members of AA for a wider range of time periods her research findings would have been drastically different.

She’s not wrong that the original founders were men, and the earliest forms of AA catered mostly to men. It is also true that the 12 steps refer to “God as we understand him”. But I don’t think that this makes Alcoholics Anonymous unequivocally sexist. I think that an approach that incorporates concepts like José Esteban Muñoz’s disidentification, in which minority groups engage with dominant discourses (such as misogyny, racism, etc.) in complex and nuanced ways. I think it would be extremely interesting to see what the presenter could find in examining how marginalized people use some of the concepts in AA that could be seen as sexist in ways that to them feel positive.

That is a paper I want to see.

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