Ann Arbor, Michigan is home to a top ten University but it is also home to more Muslims than anywhere outside the Arab world. My interest in Mooz-lum was piqued when I learned the cast was pure gold: Nia Long (Safiyah) plays Tariq’s mother and the moderate Muslim woman; Roger Guenveur Smith (Hasaan) overbearing yet caring father and husband; Danny Glover (Dean Francis), who sends out a school-wide memo that leads to his resignation; Evan Ross (Tariq) who grows into a self-hating Muslim, and Dorian Missick as Professor Jamal, a level-headed objective professor unfairly targeted by Dean Francis.
Based on the memoirs of writer/director Qasim Basir Mooz-lum turns on a pivotal event: Hasaan, makes a unilateral decision to send Tariq to a private Muslim boarding school, which changes everything. The film, however, spends too much time here, with young Tariq (Jonathan Smith) and his struggle with a cruel headmaster. He is abusive we get it—move on.
The director cuts the film into flashbacks between two Tariqs: one a young boy; the other a young college man. At university we follow Tariq where he quickly compartmentalizes his life. He shuns the narrow way of Islam and other Muslims. He wants to be cool and hang out with non-Muslim students. He imitates the easy way with women and liquor–both off limits in Islam. With this fodder for foolishness the director makes a conscious effort to steer clear of caricatures of his cast and clichés of his story. As a young boy we learned that Tariq is scarred physically and emotionally; made worse because he does not share it with anyone in his family, including his sister.
My other interest in the film was mistaken in that I thought the film was about the black Muslims founded by Elijah Mohammed and made famous by Malcolm X. The religious organization was large in Chicago and I had many friends who converted; I nearly converted as well.
(Ironically, the oldest son of successor Wallace Deen Mohammed, who died a few years ago, is married to my sister’s daughter-in-law. They still reside in Illinois, and last year I interviewed him about his life and work in Islam.) Although the Black Muslims have a different founder, they are Muslims, study the Koran, and adhere to the same orthodox tenets of traditional Islam as founded by the Prophet Mohammed .
Mooz-lum is about orthodox Muslims in America, which include adherents from all races. The action is set in Michigan’s Islamic community. Like the Catholics, the community runs and funds its own private schools and enjoy a middle class life among co-religionists. And what occurs in this one parochial school is half the focus of Mooz-lum.
The climax of the film is the 9/11 attack. Everyone becomes unhinged at the university Tariq now attends. We witness some student reaction, but the biggest reaction is from the dean of the school. Dean Francis (Danny Glover) sends out a school-wide memo that puts Muslims on the defensive. Professor Jamal storms Dean Francis’ office asking in a: (paraphrasing) “what is the meaning of this? school wide? Are you crazy?” sort of way. The Dean remains smug but it rouses some white bigoted students at the school who decide to maraud and hurt any Muslim they find on campus streets. Alone,Tariq tries to defuse the bigotry and gets help from an unexpected ally. Needless to say the trauma of 9/11 and its impact on the Muslim community brings the family closer. Collectively, they discover the abuse Tariq has suffered as a boy in an emotional reunion that signals a much-needed catharsis for the family and the viewers.
Evan Ross, who plays the adult Tariq emerges out of his shell to reveal an engaging actor and changed man before our eyes. Could this biracial beauty be the next hot pick among film makers and directors? Evan Ross is the son of Diana Ross and Arne Naess. Diana and family made a recent appearance on Oprah. Young Evan has presence, and I predict that he will be in demand following a solid performance that delivers in his first leading role.
Mooz-lum, whose title is close to the phonetic pronunciation of the word Muslim, is an independent film with that independent feel. It has garnered good reviews and a couple of awards, but snubbed by the Academy. While the movie does not suffer from shaken-camera syndrome, it does have flashback fever. The director nearly splits the movie between schoolboy Tariq and college man Tariq. I found that emphasis a little over the top. Can a director be close to the product yet remaining objective?
Bashir’s first full length film mirrors and memoirs his life growing up Muslim. He digs deeply to share his experience and his Muslim family—and he does that. But given the dearth of an insider’s look into the life of a Muslim family—he could have given us more of that and less of the bi-polarity that invades the film with the constant lens shifting between the two Tariqs. Where he should have spent more time: the present and the role of 9/11 repercussions on this town and family. With a shift in emphasis it would have been an even more powerful film.
I really liked this film for its honesty and effort to show Islam as a viable religious choice for Americans and one that offers a solid foundation for living, worshipping and exercising the right to freedom of religion so dear to us all. Muslims don’t need to see a Mosque on every street corner or in every city to know that they are welcome here. Mooz-lum is not just a good, small-budget independent film. It is also a unique voice and we hope to see more from this new director.