Movie Review – Naz & Maalik
Because the movie centers on characters who aren’t normally the center of a romantic story, that of two, gay, black, Muslim teenagers who are under suspicion by the FBI, the weight of this scenario pushes one to feeling this should be a serious drama tackling heavy ideas like homophobia and terrorism, but writer-director Jay Dockendorf eschews such heavy ideas or doesn’t allow his movie to be sunk by such. Instead, he keeps his movie light focusing on the actions of the two boys in one, single day as they bop almost arm-in-arm through Bedford–Stuyvesant, hustling for cash, sneaking intimate embraces and half-debating halal, haram, and heroism, or what they would or wouldn’t do in certain situations.
Kerwin Johnson, Jr. stars as Naz, a 18-year-old, Muslim boy in Brooklyn who spends the day with his best friend during the cool, early summer, wearing his khakis, blue shirt and kufi or skull cap. Curtiss Cook, Jr. co-stars as Maalik, a fellow 18-year-old, Muslim boy who is Naz’s aforementioned best friend. The first shot of Maalik is him sitting on Naz’s stoop reading a pamphlet for LIU, a college in Brooklyn. The purpose of the two of them for that day is to do what they can to raise money for one or both of them to attend and pay for that secondary schooling.
Their tactic is to sell things in and around Fulton Street, a busy and major drag through Bed-Stuy. They sell lottery tickets, religious cards, and not the ones you would assume, as well as candy and snacks not unlike girl scouts selling cookies. They’re on the street as well as the metro. They do a lot of walking, hanging out in the park and talking about life and love and their relationship.
As such, Dockendorf’s film is reminiscent of Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot (2013). The ease with which he and his cameras move about the streets, the authenticity and the grounded nature of the performances as well as the simplicity of the situation, not getting bogged down with too many moving parts also invokes fellow New York filmmakers like Rahmin Bahrani and even George Tillman, Jr.’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete (2013) but with the addition of subtle, if at times hot, sexual tension, which cast and filmmaker deftly handle.
In a passing moment, an undercover NYPD officer approaches Naz and Maalik to entrap them into buying a gun. Because one of them considers it for a second as a joke, that puts both of them on the radar of a female, FBI agent to whom the NYPD officer reports. That FBI agent begins to follow the teens to see what they do, and if they get into anything illegal or that could be tied to terrorism.
It just so happened that I watched this film on June 2nd, the day that the news reported that Usaama Rahim, a young, Muslim man was killed outside a CVS Pharmacy in Boston after being under surveillance and being followed by the FBI and counter-terrorism agents. With all the news of the past year of young Muslims being recruited or radicalized by terror groups like ISIS, this film is certainly topical.
Dockendorf also infuses this film with a lot of sensuality. He warmly moves and at times thrusts his camera up close into his characters’ faces. There is certainly an appreciation here of the form and flesh but not always the flesh you would assume. A scene in particular is about the flesh of a mango, a sweet fruit that Maalik heartily and passionately enjoys. Dockendorf again thrusting us close, almost into Maalik’s mouth. It’s a metaphor perhaps for the real, sweet fruit that he wants to enjoy, namely Naz who isn’t as soft or easily taken.
There aren’t a lot of films about Muslims where the Muslims are the protagonists. There are certainly not a lot of films about gay Muslims, and of the films about gay Muslims, most aren’t American. The Bubble by Eytan Fox and Out in the Dark by Michael Mayer are about gay Palestinians in Israel. My Brother the Devil by Sally El Hosaini is about a gay Egyptian in England, and Salvation Army by Abdellah Taia is about a gay Moroccan. Other than documentaries, the only film that comes close is Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus.
This film, therefore, stands as quite unique. It might be the first to have two African-American, gay Muslims in love. It’s a powerful, first step in changing or widening perceptions about young Muslim men, and their place in this world.
Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 25 mins.