‘Two Gods’ Review: A Newark Black Muslim Tries to Keep the Faith in Lyrical Observational Doc

Shot in richly textured monochrome, Zeshawn Ali's debut powerfully probes the challenges of being a role model when your own life needs guidance.

Two Gods
Courtesy of Two Gods LLC

Islam and Christianity are the dual faiths referred to in the title of “Two Gods,” but they aren’t pitted against each other, or even compared at all. Zeshawn Ali’s quiet, sternly compassionate documentary may be centered on a hard-up Black Muslim community in Newark, but it presents a tough, adaptable world in which people will take whatever fragments of faith and grace they can find. For middle-aged Hanif, doing his best to lead a good, modest life after past troubles, spiritual peace is found in a profession others might find unnerving: As a menial employee at a Muslim funeral home, he assembles caskets and washes the bodies of the dead with equally painstaking patience, finding a grave but fulfilling sense of responsibility to these bodies in limbo.

But Hanif works equally hard to extend this duty of care to the land of the living, acting as a mentor and proxy father figure to two neighborhood boys with differing problems of their own. It’s the ebb and flow of his influence on, and connection with, these kids that gives Ali’s artful doc — shot over the course of several years, but concentrated to a tight 82 minutes — its subtle narrative thrust.

Having traveled last year’s festival circuit in low-key fashion, “Two Gods” will find a sizable, sympathetic audience when it premieres in PBS’ “Independent Lens” slot on June 21, a month after the doc gets its limited U.S. theatrical release. In its intimate depiction of working-class Black people attempting to rebuild lives and livelihoods amid obstacles of crime and prejudice, the film could be aptly double-billed with Garrett Bradley’s recent “Time” — and not just because of its elegant, deep-toned black-and-white lensing. Still, its serene rhythm and worldview are distinctively its own.

In Hanif, Ali has found an unusually reserved but rewarding focal point for this kind of nonfiction character study. Tall and gaunt, with a softly polite manner and retiring body language, he’s a gentle soul who nonetheless works hard at that gentleness. Tattoos on his neck and an occasional faraway gaze are the lasting marks of the criminal activity and prison time in his past; today, his job and religion keep him mild, though he’s apt to blast out some old-school hip-hop while building caskets in the otherwise hushed, holy space of the morgue. More proactively, he uses his reformation experience to steer others away from his past mistakes — teaching casket-making both as a useful trade and a pointed symbolic warning. To 12-year-old Furquan, a fatherless kid with a level head on his shoulders, the older man’s counsel is calming relief from the physical abuse he endures at home. For 17-year-old Naz, already tilting into illegal activity with ill-chosen friends, Hanif’s cautionary example may or may not hit home in time.

But the burden of mentorship isn’t easily borne by the older man, not least because his own life isn’t fully in order yet, as poverty and social marginalization still gnaw at him. At one point, he backslides into drugs, endangering his job, his place in the community and his hard-earned spiritual recovery. There’s upheaval, too, for his young charges, as Furquan is removed to a safer household in North Carolina, while Naz suffers a potentially life-altering brush with the law. Ali and editor Colin Nusbaum fold tumultous years into brief minutes of screen time, economically distilling an arc of self-ruin and self-repair that Hanif has already lived through, likely more than once. The path to redemption isn’t exactingly mapped, perhaps because there’s no tidy route there: These men must find stability in themselves, which is easier said than done.

Ali works as his own cinematographer, capturing Hanif’s everyday reality in monochrome tableaux that alternate between crisp focus and hazier reverie. The rich tonal contrasts in the imagery may suggest warring spiritual and moral impulses in the film’s human subjects, but despite the title, and the detailed observation of ritual and rhetoric in the Black Muslim community, religious commentary is kept to a minimum. There’s solemn respect here for the fragile interior peace of others: This restrained, humane film seems most interested in how that serenity is reflected back into the world.

‘Two Gods’ Review: A Newark Black Muslim Tries to Keep the Faith in Lyrical Observational Doc

Reviewed online, London, May 20, 2021. (In Hot Docs Film Festival.) Running time: 82 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) An 8 Above release of a Two Gods LLC, Independent Television Service production. Producer: Aman Ali. Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen, Leslie Fields-Cruz.
  • Crew: Director, camera: Zeshawn Ali. Editor: Colin Nusbaum. Music: Michael Beharie.