There’s an undeniable potency to the blunt-instrument melodrama of “Mooz-lum,” a straight-from-the-heart indie that renders in primary colors a sympathetic portrait of a Muslim-American college freshman beset by an identity crisis on the eve of 9/11. With a little help from social media-fueled grassroots hype, pic could attract a simpatico niche aud in limited theatrical release. That might be enough to prime the pump for wider exposure on homevid and VOD.
Evan Ross impresses with an implosive performance as Tariq Mahdi, a moody young African-American who views college as a way of escaping years of domination by his tough-loving father, Hassan (Roger Guenveur Smith), a deeply devout Muslim whose rigid fundamentalism long ago alienated his wife (Nia Long) and their daughter (Kimberley Drummond).
Once he arrives on campus, Tariq — who quite literally bears the scars of his childhood experiences at an Islamic boarding school — sets out to reinvent himself. He insists on being addressed as “T,” and rejects suggestions made by other Muslims — including classmates and a charismatic professor (Dorian Missick) — that he at least respect his roots. But his best efforts at forging a secular identity do little to shield him from anti-Muslim rage during the hours after the fall of the Twin Towers.
For some viewers, the use of a national tragedy as a third-act plot device to teach life lessons — and reunite a dysfunctional family — might be more than a little queasy-making. But writer-director Qasim Basir’s storytelling is too sincere and sober for “Mooz-lum” to ever seem exploitative.
Still, the pic could have been even more effective had some plot developments been adequately dramatized rather than merely announced. The college dean (Danny Glover, admirably digging for subtext where there is precious little text) is portrayed as a conservative tight-ass in early scenes, but that hardly prepares the aud for his climactic outburst of full-throated anti-Muslim bigotry. And a convenient clash between two of Tariq’s classmates seems to bubble up from out of nowhere, suggesting that long-simmering tensions between the two characters were left on the cutting-room floor.
The very title, a play on the common mispronunciation of Muslim, should serve as fair warning that subtlety is not a strong point here. But Basir does allow for some intriguing ambiguities, as in hints that Tariq’s father embraced Islam in the first place while being politically radicalized during his own college days. Smith’s balanced performance as Hassan ensures that the character comes off as something far more complex than a caricature of a religious fanatic.
Tech values are fine, even though Basir is rather too fond of indicating flashbacks (and flashforwards) with saturated-color bursts.