'Mooz-lum' Confronts Public Perceptions Of Islam

The movie Mooz-lum is filmmaker Qasim Basir's effort to bring images of Muslims to the screen that are both nuanced and universally identifiable images that he says are lacking in today's entertainment climate. Host Michel Martin discusses the film, and the larger issue of media perception of Muslims with the director and the co-star of the film, veteran actor Roger Guenveur Smith.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, gospel artist Brian Courtney Wilson tells us what inspires him. It's our acknowledgement of Gospel Music Heritage Month.

But first, the new movie, "Mooz-lum." It's a coming of age story with a very up-to-the-minute sensibility. It's September, 2001, and college freshman Tariq Mahdi is trying like most freshmen to figure out where he fits in, but unlike most college freshmen in this country, he was raised in a strict and devout African-American Muslim household, and something about that experience has left him more confused and angry than most.

Here's a bit of the film. It flashes back to a moment with a substitute teacher in middle school.

(Soundbite of Movie, "Mooz-lum")

Female Teacher: K-karick Mad-nutty.

Mr. EVAN ROSS: (As Tariq) It's Tariq Mahdi.

Teacher: There's no UE after the Q.

Mr. Ross: (As Tariq) That's not how you spell it.

Teacher: Well, that's correct English.

Mr. Ross: (As Tariq) Well, it's not an English name.

Unidentified Male Speaker #1: It's a Mooz-lum(ph) name!

(Soundbite of Laughter)

MARTIN: The movie "Mooz-lum" premiered at the Urban World Film Festival in New York City last weekend. It's based on events from the life of writer, director Qasim Basir, and the film features some well known names and faces like Danny Glover and Nia Long.

And director Qasim Basir joins us now from our New York bureau, and also with us, veteran actor Roger Guenveur Smith, who plays Hassan Mahdi, the father of the main character, Tariq. Hassan wants his son to become a scholar of the Koran, despite the wishes of his wife to let his children fit in with their American peers. And they're both with us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. QASIM BASIR (Writer/Director, "Mooz-lum"): Thank you.

Mr. ROGER GUENVEUR SMITH (Actor, "Mooz-lum"): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Qasim, why don't you just start with the title of the film, "Mooz-lum."

Mr. BASIR: Yes, Mooz-lum, Muslim, Moslem. There's many different pronunciations that have been spewed out over the years in reference to the proper wording of Muslim. I don't believe it's so hard to say but apparently many people do, and the misspelling of the title has to do with the misunderstanding of the faith.

MARTIN: And why did you want to tell this story? And, of course, I think inquiring minds would want to know, does this bear some relationship to your own life, is this drawn in any way from your own life?

Mr. BASIR: Yes, sure. The story is largely autobiographical. I wrote it because I was a little tired of seeing the consistent negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media. And being that I was raised very different than what's represented as what Islam or Muslims are supposed to be, I had to write something about it that showed the human perspective of a people, of a culture, of faith.

MARTIN: But there are some tough family dynamics in this film. And then, I think, actually, these are some dynamics that I think a lot of people from many different backgrounds can relate to. Theres parental expectation brought to bear on contemporary realities that the kids don't always experience as being relevant to their lives and that can sometimes cause tensions. So, Mr. Smith this is a good time to bring you in. You play the father, Hassan Mahdi. Tell us about him, and tell us what you wanted to bring to this role.

Mr. SMITH: I wanted to bring a fully formed man, and not simply a cardboard cutout of a type. I think that that's the great struggle on stage and on screen, to create someone with whom the audience might identify. And Hassan is someone who is full of conflict, who is full of contradiction, who wants the best for his family, but perhaps does not relate to his family in the most open way.

And everyone pays the price for that including Hassan himself. And it's not unlike behavior or a set of behaviors that we can see in any group of people, any faith of people, any family of people, that is struggling to get along with society, yes, but also struggling to get along with themselves, within the family unit.

MARTIN: And to that point, let's play a short clip from the film. And it's, you know, it's a normal morning. It's a normal hustle and bustle of the morning, getting the kids off to school. And this is from a flashback moment, and the young Tariq, who's played by Jonathan Smith, is trying to get out of the house with his sisters and it's a scene between Roger Guenveur Smith playing Hassan the father and the younger Tariq. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mooz-lum")

Unidentified Woman #1: He's got a chicken sandwich and some vegetables.

Mr. Jonathan Smith: (As Young Tariq) Wouldnt it be easier if we ate the school lunch?

Unidentified Woman #1: The school lunch is not halal.

Mr. Smith:(As Young Tariq) What makes it halal?

Mr. Smith:(As Hassan) Muslims pray over our food while we prepare it.

Mr. Smith: (As Young Tariq) Preparing it?

Mr. Smith: (As Hassan) Go to school.

Mr. Smith: (As Tariq) Assalamu Alaikum.

Unidentified Women: Alaikum Assalamu.

Mr. Smith: (As Hassan) Hey, where's your kufi?

Mr. Smith: (As Young Tariq) I have my regular hat, so I didn't think I needed it.

Mr. Smith: (As Hassan) Go get your kufi and put it on your head.

Mr. Smith: (As Young Tariq) Yes, sir.

Mr. Smith: (As Hassan) Assalamu Alaikum.

MARTIN: Kufi being?

Mr. BASHIR: Its the traditional headpiece that Muslim men wear. Its a traditional, cultural thing that - yes.

MARTIN: And they're trying to work it out. And so, there's beautiful opening scene of the film where there's a tension to it that you cannot miss. And so, Mr. Smith, talk to me a little about what you think the contradictions are.

Mr. SMITH: Its the tension of a man who loves his son very much and is afraid to let him know. And that moment of silence, as he severs that final bit of the umbilical cord, I think represents that inexpressible love. He cant say I love you. He can only say, put on your seatbelt.

MARTIN: Was this a hard role for you, Mr. Smith? It sounds very like you felt it very deeply.

Mr. SMITH: I think that we as artists, on the best day, open ourselves up to a certain spirit to be inhabited, as it were, not simply to play but to serve as a vessel for both the highest aspirations of our character and the deepest, darkest aspirations as well. And what my comrade, Q, has done here is loan us a piece of his life. He has entrusted us with it and we, as artists, have a tremendous responsibility to interpret that as best, and certainly as honestly, as we possibly can.

MARTIN: Mr. Basir also talked about the whole way in which "Mooz-lum" portrayed in the media now. And we also see from polling, for example, that a number of people in this country have developed some negative attitudes toward Muslims right now.

And I was curious, Mr. Smith, cause this isn't the first time youve played a Muslim character. In the HBO series Oz, you played an inmate who happened to be a Muslim. Now, he wasnt in prison because he was a Muslim. The fact is that the series was set in prison, okay, so for those who aren't aware that just to establish that. But I'm curious about if you feel any particular responsibility in portraying a character who is Muslim at a time when this is a particular group that is catching a lot of hell, only just to be frank about it, and about whom many have suspicion and theres a lot of sensitivities around it. Is there anything youre concerned with?

Mr. SMITH: I think I've always had a sensitivity. When I did the character on Oz, whom I had actually forgotten until you just reminded me, I was beating up a Jewish man as he came out of the synagogue because the Jewish man allegedly shot a young African-American man in his store for allegedly shoplifting. And I refused to wear a kufi in the scene where I beat the man because I refused to do violence as representative of a certain faith, which would've been indicated by his wearing of the kufi.

We have these choices that we can make as artists. We can elect, as Paul Robeson says, to fight for slavery or fight for freedom.

MARTIN: Mr. Basir, this film is timely and theres another clip I'm going to play in just a minute where the emotions that many people have been experiencing over the last few years since 9/11 come into play. I'm going to play that in a minute. But the family relationship really is at the core and the internal conflicts are at the core, but its not all sweetness and light, this is not...

Mr. BASIR: No.

MARTIN: And you could've made that film.

Mr. BASIR: Right.

MARTIN: You could've made it, you know, the Cosbys in a kufi or something.

Mr. BASIR: Right. Right.

MARTIN: But you didnt do that. So I am curious to know whether you ever felt any dilemma there from people who felt, well, why are you putting that out there?

Mr. BASIR: In order for the story to convey accuracy, theres a necessity for it to be fair. And if I was to be too one-sided or favorable to one aspect of it, I do not think it would be an honest film. I do not think it would be well received. Whats taking place in society today, people are very fearful of certain facets of this whole, I dont even know what to call it. But they're very fearful of certain people who call themselves Muslim that commit horrible acts. And that is a very real thing thats taking place nowadays. And its that we need to delve in deeper and really learn more in order to get past this fear.

MARTIN: And speaking of the fear, this is a good place to play the final clip I wanted to play. I think it speaks for itself. This is just after 9/11 and here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mooz-lum")

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Tell me what the hell is going on?

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) I'm going to make this right for my sister.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) What are you guys doing? Why is Jason acting so crazy?

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) We're getting revenge.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Revenge on who?

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Terrorists.

(Soundbite of shouting)

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) There are no terrorists here. Who you talking about?

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) I'm talking about them.

Unidentified Actor #3: (as character) Do you honestly think you can come into my country and kill my people and get away with it? This is payback time. I am the law today. Tonight, youre going to be punished by me.

Unidentified Actor #4: (as character) Tariq, stop what youre doing.

Unidentified Actor #3: (as character) Where do you think youre going?

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) What the hell are you doing?

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Rabid(ph), come on now. Are you serious? Rabid?

Unidentified Actor #3: (as character) Oh.

Unidentified Actor #1: Come on, man.

Unidentified Actor #3: Oh, so youre one of them? Oh, okay. I didnt know. But thats okay. I'm going to beat you down too, just like any other terrorist that gets in my way.

Unidentified Actor #4: (as character) We are not terrorists.

Unidentified Actor #3: It was your people that...

MARTIN: Its a very tense scene. Like I said, we won't give you the we won't tell it all of what happens. But many films about very difficult themes are made years after those events have taken place. I mean, I do wonder if you think people are ready for this. What do you think?

Mr. BASIR: Yeah. It's - the film isn't about 9/11. And I wanted to make sure that it was done that way so that it wouldnt be written up as a 9/11 film. And also, we are approaching 9/11 from a different perspective, a perspective of Muslim-Americans so that people can see that it was also a fearful situation for Muslims here, it was an awful situation, it was something that hurt us all. I wanted people to see it from that perspective.

MARTIN: And I do take your point but despite that youve got, you know, talents like Mr. Smith, Nia Long, Danny Glover, you know, familiar faces, big names making a hit on the film festival circuit, to my knowledge, you dont have a distribution deal yet. And I wonder if you think it's because of the film, because of the themes or that people aren't ready for it yet.

Mr. BASIR: Well, we really have not - I mean, the film just got finished, you know, so no one's seen it yet. It's like, I wouldnt say that we're having problems getting distribution yet because its not really out there yet. We are just now showing it to anyone. So, you know, once - I mean we'll see. It's very speculative right now but we'll see.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for showing it to us.

Mr. BASIR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Mr. Smith, a final thought for you. What do you think? Do you think people are ready for it?

Mr. SMITH: I think that people have to be ready for it. Dr. King said that, you know, we have to be ready to live together...

Mr. BASIR: The urgency of right now.

Mr. SMITH: ...as brothers and sisters...

Mr. BASIR: The fierce urgency of now.

Mr. SMITH: ...or perish together as fools. And Rodney King said something akin to that as well.

MARTIN: Roger Guenveur Smith joined us from our bureau in New York. He stars in a new film by Qasim Basir. It is called "Mooz-lum" and it can now be seen on the film festival circuit. And thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BASHIR: Thank you.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you.

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