Young African-American Muslims Share A Hidden Love In 'Naz & Maalik'

Jan 29, 2016
Originally published on January 29, 2016 1:45 pm

Given the recent expression of anger about the lack of racial diversity in American cinema, it's nice to be able to tell you about Jay Dockendorf's very fine indie feature Naz & Maalik, in which the title characters are African-American teenage boys who also happen to be devout Muslims who also happen to be gay.

That's three outsider perspectives, which is a lot even for an indie. But the point is not representation for its own sake. The triple layer of alienation from mainstream culture makes for an excitingly fresh slant.

Dockendorf isn't black, but he wrote the script based on interviews with gay, African-American Muslims, and the movie has a layered, documentary-like texture.

The first thing you'll notice is that while Naz and Maalik have stable homes, they live much of their lives on the streets of Brooklyn. They buy lottery tickets in bulk and hawk them on sidewalks for a big mark-up. They sell exotic fragrances. On the single day the movie takes place, they also sell colorful trading cards depicting Christian icons that Naz bought because he found them beautiful. It's a public life, a life in the open. And the open is where they're incredibly vulnerable.

I don't need to tell you that traditional Muslims condemn homosexuality, but Naz and Maalik steal kisses in alleys when they can. They're young enough to get away with rolling around on the ground — what we used to call horseplay. They take long, winding walks through the park.

Naz, played by Kerwin Johnson, Jr., wears a kufi cap — a religious prayer hat — and seems more thoughtful and political than the raw, impulsive Maalik, played by Curtiss Cook, Jr. He wrestles with the tension between his sexual identity, his faith and his family, but there's an even more serious threat than family and community rejection. An undercover cop the teens encounter fingers them as suspicious to a roving FBI agent played by Annie Grier.

The scenes in which she tails the boys, waylays them and grills them on their whereabouts aren't particularly subtle, but they do make us feel — viscerally — the effect of so much intense scrutiny. Naz and Maalik are still kids, really, still unformed, and they don't have what kids need most: to feel free to make choices.

Dockendorf's direction, though, is free-form: He finds the right balance between easy naturalism and something more heightened. The movie has spacious, kinetic cinematography by Jake McGee and offbeat editing by Andrew Hafitz. Their Brooklyn is a cauldron — full of ranters, homeless people, the poor and the affluent side by side. All these disparate cultures are difficult to reconcile, which adds to the excitement, the unpredictability of life, but also the jitteriness.

At times the movie seems a little cautious, as if Dockendorf, an outsider to this community, didn't want to be caught sensationalizing his characters' lives. And though the actors are all good — especially Ashleigh Awusie as Naz's disapproving younger sister — no one really breaks out.

But there's a strange, near-absurdist rooftop climax that takes Naz & Maalik to a more surreal level — an attempt to kill a chicken for dinner that leads to something hilarious and then horrible. The movie ends on the downbeat, but you're left with a feeling of empathy that is, in its way, exhilarating. Here is one more piece of the puzzle that is American life — a piece that has never made it to the screen before. You wonder how many others are missing.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Hidden love, strict Muslim observance and the war on terror come together in the new independent feature "Naz And Maalik," which depicts a day in the life of two African-American teenagers in Brooklyn. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Given the recent expression of anger about the lack of racial diversity in American cinema, it's nice to be able to tell you about Jay Dockendorf's very fine indie feature "Naz And Maalik," in which the title characters are African-American teenage boys who also happen to be devout Muslims, who also happen to be gay. That's three outsider perspectives, which is a lot even for an indie. But the point is not representation for its own sake. The triple layer of alienation from mainstream culture makes for an excitingly fresh slant. Dockendorf isn't black, but he wrote the script based on interviews with gay African-American Muslims. And the movie has a layer documentary-like texture. The first thing you'll notice is that while Naz and Maalik have stable homes, they live much of their lives on the streets of Brooklyn. They buy lottery tickets in bulk and hawk them on sidewalks for a big markup. They sell exotic fragrances. On the single day the movie takes place, they also sell colorful trading cards depicting Christian icons that Naz bought because he found them beautiful. It's a public life, a life in the open. And the open is where they're incredibly vulnerable. I don't need to tell you that traditional Muslims condemn homosexuality. But Naz and Maalik steal kisses in alleys when they can. They're young enough to get away with rolling around on the ground - what we used to call horseplay. They take long, winding walks through the park. Naz, played by Kerwin Johnson Jr., wears a Kufi cap, a religious prayer hat and seems more thoughtful and political than the raw, impulsive Maalik, played by Curtiss Cook Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NAZ AND MAALIK")

CURTISS COOK JR: (As Maalik) Only Allah can judge me. I'm sure of that. You know, all these people, what are they - they perfect now? No, we'll see. We'll see when we meet Muhammad, all praise be to him. We'll see.

KERWIN JOHNSON JR: (As Naz) Do you think the world's getting better?

COOK: (As Maalik) Yeah.

JOHNSON: (As Naz) I don't think so. Change gets too much credit. People confuse it with progress and don't even realize the truth. Change happens all the time - bad change.

COOK: (As Maalik) What are you talking about? Things are improving all the time.

JOHNSON: (As Naz) They mostly regress. No one respects anyone anymore - more inmates than there were sleeves. Education's for [expletive] unless you loaded. You can't get rich unless you were born rich.

COOK: (As Maalik) I mean, yeah.

JOHNSON: (As Naz) I don't know, man - bad times, real bad.

EDELSTEIN: The cynicism and bitterness you hear in Naz's voice doesn't mean he's closed down. He's out there trying to make things better and wrestling with the tension between his sexual identity and his faith. But in "Naz And Maalik," there's an even more serious threat than his family's and community's rejection. An undercover cop the teens encounter fingers them as suspicious to a roving FBI agent played by Annie Grier. The scenes in which she tails the boys, waylays them and grills them on their whereabouts aren't particularly subtle. But they do make us feel viscerally the effect of so much intense scrutiny. Naz and Maalik are still kids, really - still unformed. And they don't have what kids need most - to feel free to make choices. Jay Dockendorf's direction, though, is free-form. He finds the right balance between easy naturalism and something more heightened. The movie has spacious kinetic cinematography by Jake McGee and offbeat editing by Andrew Hafitz. Their Brooklyn is a cauldron full of ranters, homeless people, the poor and the affluent side-by-side. All these disparate cultures are difficult to reconcile, which adds to the excitement, the unpredictability of life but also the jitteriness. At times, the movie seems a little cautious as if Dockendorf, an outsider to this community, didn't want to be caught sensationalizing his characters' lives. And though the actors are all good, especially Ashleigh Awusie as Naz's disapproving younger sister, no one really breaks out. But there's a strange, near-absurdist rooftop climax that takes "Naz And Maalik" to a more surreal level - an attempt to kill a chicken for dinner that leads to something hilarious and then horrible. The movie ends on the downbeat. But you're left with a feeling of empathy that is, in its way, exhilarating. Here is one more piece of the puzzle that is American life, a piece that has never made it to the screen before. You wonder how many others are missing.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed "Naz and Maalik." The film is in limited release in theaters and available on demand. On Monday's show, we talk about China's one child policy with journalist Mei Fong, author of "One Child." Last fall, China announced the policy would be lifted allowing married couples to have two children. Fong traveled to a bachelor village with no women of marriageable age and met people whose one child had died after they agreed to be sterilized. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.