Mooz-Lum is an independent film that debuted late last year to standing-room-only audiences and well-earned praise at last year’s Urbanworld Film Festival. Making its wide-release debut today after an aggressive grassroots push to elevate its profile sufficiently to get it into theaters, this thoughtful picture arrives at an auspicious time. Culture-watchers are embroiled in a vigorous debate about an apparent dearth of quality roles for black actors, which a few weeks ago resulted in a shutout of Oscar nominations. At the same time, instances of Islamic extremism continue to occupy headlines worldwide, even as the memories of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks still percolate in the minds of many nearly ten years later.
Part coming-of-age drama, part religious exegesis, Mooz-lum strives to be the latest cinematic effort to spark cross-cultural dialogue. In fact, the title is a deliberate mispronunciation of the Muslim, meant to evoke the idea of misunderstanding. At a January screening in New York City, Novice filmmaker Qasim “Q” Basir describes the film as semi-autobiographical, and an attempt to cultivate a better mainstream understanding of the Islamic faith. “When terrorist acts happen, Muslims are affected to. Not only are Muslims affected by the violence of terrorists, but [they are] being associated with terrorists,” Basir told a room of viewers. “This is not for the Tyler Perry audience,” he joked. And in many ways, he’s absolutely correct.
All of which means that Mooz-lum, despite its earnestness and gripping performances, walks something of a tightrope between moralizing and well-meaning, yet ultimately insufficient, attempts to educate. The movie has at its core a compelling though flawed premise, even as it gingerly sidesteps the director’s central objective: trying to distinguish the beliefs of peace-loving Muslims from the radical interpretation of Islam that birthed the September 11 plots, and continues to fuel extremism worldwide.
WATCH THE TRAILER FOR ‘MOOZ-LUM’
Evan Ross anchors the movie with a brilliant and often mesmerizing performance as Tariq Mahdi, a college-bound African-American who finds himself torn between a devout and disciplinarian Muslim father Hassan (played by the criminally underrated Roger Guenveur Smith), and his doting yet fiercely independent mother (portrayed by Nia Long, another woefully underestimated actor). In a series of jarring flashbacks and flash-forwards, viewers learn that Tariq’s seminal religious experience was being enrolled briefly in an Islamic religious school as a young boy, where a series of traumatic events cause him to reject his strict religious upbringing.
Once he enrolls in college, Tariq battles against an encroaching sense of alienation from his peers, distancing himself from his religion and many of those around him. The cast is rounded out by a comparatively brief appearance by Danny Glover, who hovers over the movie malevolently as the college’s antagonistic dean.
While Tariq clearly doesn’t identify with the strictures of Islam, at various points during the movie he demonstrates a deft understanding of the Qu’ran and speaking Arabic. His religious upbringing leads to some awkward interactions and make adjusting to college life difficult for him. Still, Tariq manages to keep his religion and his observant Muslim roommate at arms length, even as culture wars continually erupt around him.
The traumatic event of Sept. 11 becomes a plot device that propels the narrative into hyperdrive, and it is at this point where Mooz-lum’s flaws become most glaring. The immediate aftermath of the attack leads to mass confusion, fear and bigotry on campus, as non-Muslim students inevitably clash with their Islam-following peers. Given the horrifying events of that fateful day, some degree of fear and loathing was an understandable, if irrational, response to the crisis. But as terror sweeps the campus and Tariq’s friends are caught in the middle, the movie misses an opportunity to discuss how ordinary Muslims differ from those who are inspired by violent extremism. Rather than fostering understanding, non-Muslims are depicted in semi-caricature fashion as xenophobic, marauding bigots. Motivated by vengeance, they blindly lash out at anyone who isn’t like them.
Granted, Mooz-lum is an independent movie with a limited budget, and one that the director forthrightly states was a vehicle for his own personal self-examination. But Mooz-lum’s core values seem to be redemption and understanding, its unstated promise to clarify the distinctions between ordinary and radical Muslims ultimately evaporates. Whether by design or accident, the movie actually does more to highlight many of the cultural and relationship conflicts adherence to Islam can provoke. Tariq’s parents, who have differing interpretations of what it means to be a good Muslim, are ultimately torn apart by a religion to which they both adhere. The movie only mentions in passing the reasons why, and almost never delves deeply into the reasons why conflict and tension seems to pulsate when the movie’s Muslims interact with non-Muslims — and even when they deal with other Muslims.
In 2006, HBO debuted Big Love, a drama about a fundamentalist Mormon with three wives, to much media fanfare. As someone who was curious about the Mormon faith and mainstream references to its belief in polygamy, I tuned in hoping to be enlightened by Mormonism. After watching the first few episodes — which were bogged down with interpersonal dynamics and politics and hierarchy between the wives — I quickly lost interest. It struck me that Mooz-lum, though thought-provoking and gripping in its own way, was weighted by a similar fundamental problem that prevented me from enjoying Big Love: too much emphasis on the dramatic, coupled with underwhelming exposition.
Movies about religion are invariably fraught with controversy, but they should make you think. While it is worth seeing for the dramatic performances alone, Mooz-lum falls short in its effort to promote religious understanding. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t break new ground in illuminating the pressing question of why ordinary Muslims, who are ostensibly eager to avoid being lumped in with extremists, often remain reticent in the face of Islamic-inspired violence.