Naz & Maalik
Written and Directed by Jay Dockendorf
Premiered March 14, 2015, at the South by Southwest Film Festival
Review by C. Todd White
April 7, 2018
Naz & Maalik portrays one day in the life of two black gay Muslim men living in Brooklyn at the dawn of their love.
The film is not, really, a documentary, nor does it “feel” like one. Yet it is highly ethnographic, an accurate portrayal one day in the life of two boys coming of age, a particular class of people that, for most of us, exists only in the shade of the city, and its fringes—and the news.
After viewing the movie, I was surprised to learn that Dockendorf and his crew are all outsiders to the lives they so well portray. The primary actors, Kerwin Johnson, Jr. and Curtiss Cook, Jr., do not identify as gay, nor are they Muslim. Dockendorf himself is white.
The film was created organically, from life-as-lived and the ground up. While subletting a room in New York from a Muslim graduate student in 2012, Dockendorf began to witness the difficulties of coming of age as a closeted gay Muslim. He began to compile a screenplay based on conversations with his co-resident host. Later, in production, the actors and filmmakers continually sought the advice of “insider” consultants, and it ultimately took three years of work and research to get the story right.
This day begins on Friday morning when a Muslim girl [Ashleigh Awusie] in a hijab blows her nose, tosses the tissue, and spots a condom in the trash bin. She confronts her brother [Johnson] with the goods, requesting $25 not to tell Mom and Dad. Her brother, in a pressed blue shirt and white cotton Kufi, shrugs the accusations aside and leaves, meeting his purple-shirted (secret) boyfriend [Cook] to walk the streets of Brooklyn on quest for the money they need to go to college.
Their game is to purchase Lotto tickets and “smell goods,” scented oils, which they then sell on the street for profit. One of the boys, in the blue shirt, picks up a deck of Catholic Saint cards as well, on impulse.
As the boys hit the streets, their personalities gradually begin to differentiate. Fifteen minutes in to the film, we finally figure out which is which.
When confronted individually by a nosy and suspicious FBI agent [Annie Grier], who was openly engaging New York’s Muslim community in order to “get to know the neighborhood,” one boy gives truth but the other lies as to their whereabouts the night before. This had been the boys’ first intimate night together (thus the condom)—and this lie sets the drama into motion.
Knowing that Naz & Maalik is more ethnographic than it is symbolic, I resist the temptation to read into the film more than is there, as with the individual saint cards which are “played” sometimes on purpose, and sometimes by coincidence. Still, the realism of the film portrays Islam in a way that helped me to better understand the boys’ faith, getting a peek at it from the inside. Similarly, others in the audience might come to better understand how painful—and dangerous—the coming-out process can be for those coming of age within a strict religious household. The perils are very real for these aspiring young friends.
But all of this is secondary to sheer beauty of this movie. Brooklyn is presented as a wonderland of subways and parks, busy streets and colorful alleys. Ethnic tensions are acknowledged but not exaggerated, and we see a place full of wonder, potential, and growth. This is a film about trust and family, neighborhood and community. The danger is real, as is the oppression. But I side with Maalik, the optimist of the pair, the one who sells the smell-goods and laughs at the saints. Together or separately, these young men are headed exactly where they belong: college.
With producers Margaret Katcher and Jacob Albert, Dockendorf compiled an impressive team of seasoned (though young) professionals, and he integrated their perspectives into the film while respecting and trusting the expertise of each. Much credit for the film’s success goes to Holly Buczek for her impeccable casting; Adam Gunter for his propelling but unobtrusive score; and Jake Magee, Director of Photography, for making this film as beautiful as it is real.
© 2018 by C. Todd White. All rights reserved.
Edited from a review first published by Out In Jersey magazine