An overview of the African-American Muslim experience told from a unique point of view, Aminah Bakeer Abdul-Jabbaar’s “Bilalian” arrives at an opportune moment. Begun prior to Sept. 11 and completed afterward, pic debuts when audiences are craving knowledge about Middle Eastern religions and just when Islam could benefit from a level-headed, even-keel presentation. Abdul-Jabbaar, however, isn’t out to sell or not sell a religion, but rather to explore how Islam took hold in the African-American community and helped give many disenfranchised blacks a voice. More fest exposure, cable pickup and even limited theatrical release are in store.
Pic’s title refers to a term briefly used to describe members of the Nation of Islam, following the death of Elijah Muhammad and the succession of his son, Warith Deen Muhammad. Latter chose the term (which refers to Bilal, the historical first black adherent to Islam) to unify the factions that had sprung up in the Nation, but only added fuel to dissenting fires, which eventually led to a crippling split between followers of Muhammad and the young Louis Farrakhan.
Abdul-Jabbaar begins there, explaining her own childhood identity crisis as the daughter of two Nation of Islam members. Subsequently, through conversations with her father, stepmother and other firsthand observers, she charts the rise of the Nation in America’s black communities and tells how families like hers got involved.
It’s a big subject, but Abdul-Jabbaar never gets lost in it, remaining resolutely direct and personal. It’s a commitment that makes “Bilalian” part of a welcome string of new docus (including “Hybrid,” “My Father, the Genius” and “Stone Reader”) in which the filmmakers seem motivated by a deeply felt need.
Pic is mostly talking heads, but very articulate ones. Abdul-Jabbaar lets her subjects’ stories unfold in long, unbroken narratives and includes indelible moments, such as her father’s impassioned reading of Langston Hughes’ poem “Ku Klux,” that many filmmakers might have left on the cutting-room floor.
She complements these testimonials with a look at depictions of blacks in early Hollywood serials, newspaper cartoons and popular music. The film is exceptionally perceptive about a little-discussed issue — how stereotypes led many blacks to feel ashamed of their own race. Islam in America, Abdul-Jabbaar argues, has been an identity-building tool for blacks, a way for a maligned race to recapture its dignity.
But “Bilalian” is not a commercial for the Nation of Islam. Abdul-Jabbaar and her subjects point out the bevy of contradictions inherent in the Nation’s philosophies; and when Abdul-Jabbaar and her stepmother travel to Senegal to visit a community of Islamic African-American expatriates, only one man agrees to be interviewed on camera, the others forbidden to appear or are put off by the perceived bias of the film’s title.
The trip to Africa is in many ways the crux of the film; for Abdul-Jabbaar, Africa represents an utopian dream. But when she arrives in Senegal, her taxi breaks down in a small village and she’s mobbed by children obsessed with America, pressing against her as though some of her Americanness might rub off on them — a striking image.
Later, when she visits the village of the real Kunta Kinte, now transformed into a tourist mecca, the dissipation of the African dream is complete. While this aspect of the film deviates somewhat from Abdul-Jabbaar’s earlier, concentrated focus, it’s also where the personal, identity-resolving reasons for making the film come into sharpest view, and it’s the part of “Bilalian” that you wish could be further developed.