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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SECSOR 2016

Last week I attended the 2016 SECSOR  (Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion) Conference in Atlanta.

I presented in one of the “Women, Gender, and Religion” sections, along with four others discussing the intersections of gender and nationality.

One paper in particular that stuck with me was Pamela Ayo Yetunde’s “A New Spelling of Our Names: The Psycho-Spiritual Experiences of African-American Buddhist Lesbians”. (A link to some of her writing can be found here)

Yetunde’s approach was ethnographic (as were all of the panelists other than myself), and approached the religiosity of these women in a way that I did not expect. Her data included those who self-identified as Buddhist, but additionally looked at the ways in which the individuals described their beliefs, worldviews, and practices, labeling them as Buddhist if they fit into what could be described as Buddhist theology.

A greal of the paper seemed to be supporting the notion that a person can hold multiple religious identities, and that these do not necessarily need to be in conflict with one another. This is a notion that I think is very interesting, and one that would be worth considering in more detail as I continue my studies.

I don’t have a lot to add at this time. I was at first dismayed that all of the other panelists were addressing contemporary theological communities using anthropological and ethnographic methods, while my subject matter was rather ancient, and I took a theoretical approach. But through my brief conversation with Yetunde I saw how they could be connected. My paper dealt with the violent exclusion and othering of one group by another, and hers dealt with a way in which it seemed like certain individuals were able to bridge gaps between practices and traditions that at first seem irreconcilable.

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