Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Exploring Muslim & Mexican Culture in Film, in "Mooz-lum" & "From Prada to Nada"

I recently watched two movies I had never heard of prior to last week, via Netflix, as a result of a casual browse...and I was really fulfilled by the viewing experience.

The movie "Mooz-lum" was released in February of 2011, and was written and directed by Qasim Basir. It's a story about a young Muslim man, Tariq (played by Evan Ross), and his journey to college and battle with his identity. Raised by a strict Muslim father, Hassan (played by Roger Guenveur Smith), and separated from his loving mother Safiyah (Nia Long) due to her problems with Hassan, Tariq grew up under religious scrutiny from his father and abuse at the private school he was forced to attend.

He knew no other life, and various flashbacks from his childhood show that Tariq always battled his Muslim identity. He was teased in school, he often took off his Kufi cap whenever he was not in the presence of his father. It was an obvious battle, and made him extremely introverted and visibly disturbed throughout most of the film.

Now while his mother, Safiyah, was a pleasant and spiritual Muslim woman, she took Tariq's younger sister and left Hassan while they were children, to be able to exercise even moderate freedoms. She didn't agree with all of Hassan's rules, and while she was still serving Allah, she did so at her own pace.

There were so many important things happening in this subtle look at an American family, living in Michigan. It wasn't overtly preachy or filled with stereotypical artifacts or was a moment in the life of a Muslim-American family, and an interesting insight into the challenges this particular family was facing.

It could have been any culture, any religion...and any family. But I LOVED the fact that it was a Muslim family, because it made me realize that these are images we RARELY if EVER see on the big screen, small screen, or any screen. I love that it was an African-American family, because it was a reminder that people of the Muslim faith come in all ethnicities and races.

So there were power struggles of man vs. woman, religion vs. secular culture, and even battles of keeping the family unified. There were issues of childhood peer pressure and bullying, and coming-of-age as a young man in America. Again, nothing over-the-top, but definitely what I believe to be honest depictions.

When Tariq heads off to college, he is placed with a Muslim roommate (as his father's request), however, is quick to shun his background and traditions, and instead try to blend in with his peers. Blending in proves to be difficult because Tariq is completely unsocialized, having spent most of his time in mosques and religious schools and environments. He doesn't have a protocol for how to behave around a woman he likes. He can't handle his liquor, the first time he goes out drinking with some classmates. He is shy, and awkward, and you can tell that his cultural identity is weighing heavily on him.

So after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, Tariq's campus (like most of America, at the time) becomes heightened with cultural tensions, and anti-Islamics sentiments. This brings about the climax of the movie when Tariq is faced with a choice: to embrace and acknowledge his roots and defend his culture and family...or to continue to blend in with his classmates and attempt a life of "normalcy."

I really enjoyed this movie because the problems were heavy, however the solutions were quite simple. It took one of the most fearful and uncomfortable eras of recent American history, and humanized it. Humanized the family members, and their experiences, and showed the beauty of their religion, which is something that is often forgotten in media hoopla and negative circulated beliefs.

I commend this film for presenting the story as a day-in-the-life American tale, and not a sensationalized series of events with radical results. I appreciate the deeper understanding of Muslim life/culture just by watching the young Tariq washing his feet in the bathroom sink, or his sister taking off her hijab when she arrives at school and fixing her hair before class. The personal moments. The real moments.

There should be more of these on screen.

Now the movie "From Prada to Nada" (also released in early 2011) was definitely more lighthearted with occasional attempts at comedy, but the cultural take-away was just as fulfilling to me. This is a story directed by Angel Gracia, based on the plot of Jane Austen's "Sense & Sensibility."

It's about two "rich" Mexican-American sisters who are forced to leave their lavish lifestyle and spending habits behind after the death of their widowed father. They move from their Beverley Hills mansion, to East Los Angeles to live with their estranged aunt (played by Adriana Barraza). The sisters, Nora (Camille Belle) the academic law student, and Mary (Alexa Vega) the superficial shopaholic, couldn't be more different, but the adjustments are huge for both of them.

Nora is focused on finishing up school, and her internship, and trying not to fall in love with Edward (Nicholas D'Agosto) who would inevitably take her away from her career goals. She is embracing the change and aware of her culture, but so focused on succeeding that she forgets to take care of herself at times.

Mary is the typical privileged child, who is in denial about her Mexican roots and unaware of her culture to the fullest extreme. She is afraid to move to East LA and a definite snob when it comes to her neighbours, their lifestyles, and of course the local handyman-turned-love interest Bruno (played by the ever-hot Wilmer Valderrama).

It's a predictable-ass story, but I easily sat through it, and actually enjoyed it. I loved to see even these seemingly "white" American girls have to deal with culture shock, and identity, and finding out who they are and what it means in a context outside of Rodeo Drive.

I enjoyed seeing Mexican culture intimately, albeit fictional and possibly very surface, I did like to see how they got down. Again...this is not something that you see on a "day-in-the-life" basis regularly on television, so it was refreshing to see these cultures normalized on screen.

So needless to say, Nora eventually gives in when Edward gets engaged, expresses her love for him after much resistance, and the two of them get married and open a free legal clinic in her aunt's Mexican neighbourhood. Pleasantness.

Mary falls for a hot Mexican assistant professor, Rodrigo (played by Kuno Becker) because he's rich, he is planning to buy a home in Beverley Hills, and he is a ticket out of East LA and back into the lavish lifestyle she is accustomed to. But low and behold...Mr. Perfect already has a WIFE, he BUYS Mary's father's house that they were exiled from (by her mystery half-brother and his bougie wife...long story), and Rodrigo dismisses Mary and their love affair in public, breaking her heart.

But wait...she DOES get into a car accident, and rusty Bruno from the neighbourhood cleans up nicely (this IS Wilmer Valderamma we're talking about, after all) and he's by her side the entire time. They kiss. They fall in love too.

OK, so "From Prada to Nada" isn't as morally rich as "Mooz-lum" was, but it was equally rich in culture, which is what I walked away with from both films.

After an afternoon of movie watching, I really felt like I had new insight. I felt like I had seen something that I have rarely seen, and had spent time looking intimately into the lives of those we rarely get media access to...let alone positive media access.

Without the stereotypes, or controversy, or over-the-top depictions, I think that both movies were just common stories of American life. The additional labels are important...but also a non-factor. At the root of both movies were human tales about acceptance, about identity, and about realizing what is important in life. Simple things. Family. Love. Support. Self-respect. This is the same no matter what cultural lens we use. It's just nice to see different versions of the same tale.

 Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

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