Qasim Basir (via Qasimbasir.com/)
In 1981 the late Literary Theorist, Edward Said, published one of his influential texts “Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World” which challenged the essentialist representation of Islam and Muslims as the degenerate “other” in Western media since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Three years later Jack Shaheen published “The TV Arab” (1984) which analysed 100 different popular TV entertainment programmes to demonstrate how they constructed racist stereotypes of Arabs. In a more recent publication titled “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” (2006) Jack Shaheen drew upon Edward Said’s earlier text “Orientalism” (1978) to examine both the cinematic vilification of Arab characters and the connection between American politics and Hollywood’s depiction of its villains.
Hollywood has always tried to win on the screen the wars that America loses on the ground. Anyone who grew up on a staple diet of the Vietnam War action movies of the 80s without some basic knowledge of world history would be forgiven for thinking that such “historical” films were an accurate representation of reality.
The images of Arabs and Muslims produced and disseminated via the media, TV entertainment programmes, and movies have had an impact on most people’s perception of Muslims. According to Harvard University’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “about a third of the American public (32%) – including nearly half of those who offer a negative opinion of Muslims (48%) – say what they have seen or read in the media has had the biggest influence on their views.”
A handful of Muslim directors and film-makers from America, Africa, and Asia have been “shooting back” at Hollywood and telling their stories unfiltered by Hollywood’s politics. They represent the “New Muslim Cool” movement which is redefining what it means to be Muslim in a modern society, particularly after 9/11. In 2007 a groundbreaking film, “Il va pleuvoir sur Conakry” (Clouds over Conakry), by the African director Cheick Fantamady Camara premiered in theatres and film festivals in North America and Europe to wide critical acclaim. It is a film which deals with some of the challenges that young Muslims, or the “Hip Hop ummah”, are facing. The film follows the romantic life of its young protagonist BB (Alex Ogou) who works as a political cartoonist at a liberal newspaper. BB also happens to be the son of a respected Imam of Guinea’s capital, Conakry. His strict Muslim father Karamako has plans for him to travel to Saudi Arabia to study and succeed him as Conakry’s Imam. Meanwhile, BB has other plans which lead to a conflict between his father’s traditional values and BB’s modern expression and re-interpretation of such values. The influence of the late cinemagician and father of African cinema Ousmane Sembène on Camara is obvious.
Leading this new movement is Qasim Basir, a young African-American director and Danny Glover’s protégé, whose first feature film “MOOZ-lum” (2011) has already scooped a few awards and is attracting a large following across the world. I recently spoke to Qasim Basir about his new film which he described as “semi-autobiographical.” The film features American actor Evan Ross , son of Diana Ross, in his first leading role as Tariq, the protagonist, alongside the legendary actor Danny Glover, Nia Long, Roger Guenveur Smith, Summer Bishil, and Dorian Missick. The title “MOOZ-lum”, like the word “Ayrab” for Arab, plays on most Americans’ mispronunciation of the term “Muslim” and draws attention to the ignorance that some Americans have about each other. MOOZ-lum is a powerful and entertaining “coming of age drama” which was first conceived as a short film when Qasim Basir was still in university. The short film went on to win a prestigious award. Danny Glover, one of the judges, encouraged Qasim Basir to turn the short film into a bigger project and took him under his wings.
The story behind the making of MOOZ-lum mirrors Tariq’s life, the film’s protagonist, as he negotiates his multiple identities in an increasingly intolerant world. It was a truly interfaith project that brought together the film’s auteur Qasim Basir (a Muslim), Dana Offenbach (Jewish) the film’s producer and Basir’s close friend, and a cast of Christian or non-Muslim actors playing Muslim characters. Evan Ross even memorised difficult sections of the Qur’an in their original ancient Arabic for the role. In his contribution to the debate on race, religion, and pluralism in America, Qasim Basir is already on the path carved by that other legendary director Spike Lee. Like Spike Lee, Qasim Basir will soon discover that when you make culturally important and challenging films like MOOZ-lum it is not going to be easy finding distributors in Hollywood.
Michael Mumisa is a PhD candidate and Special Livingstone Scholar at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge