“Reason is like an officer when the King appears;
The officer then loses his power and hides himself.
Reason is the shadow cast by God; God is the sun.”
– Rumi (Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi جلالالدین محمد رومی),
from Masnavi I Ma’navi: The Spiritual Couplets of Maulána Jalálu-‘d-Dín Muhammad Rúmí (1898)
Whenever the term “Representation Matters” is thrown about, it tends to reveal more about the person who heard it than the one who spoke it. The one who heard it frequently reacts as if they’ve had an epiphany about the dearth of non-White hetero male stories told regularly, or they look any form of diversity as a threat to their (usually) White hetero male norm. God forbid a single diverse story be told against the majority of White ones.
Representation is most important when considering the stories one tells children. There’s very little evidence to back up the old myth about people mimicking the violence they seen in popular culture, but there’s conclusive evidence that a failure to see oneself depicted positively in mainstream culture (if at all) does a number on your self-esteem. It’s easy for young White kids to seem themselves reflected in Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but the rest of us are usually left out in the cold. That’s why we get so excited for a film like Black Panther on the horizon (to say nothing of the fact that its early reviews are glowing): the mere thought of us taking the lead role in a popular action-adventure story is a cause for celebration.
Ayman Jamal had this in mind when he decided to make a film about Bilal ibn Rabah بلال ابن رباح, one of the most legendary heroes in Arabic and Islamic history. Jamal spent a reported seven years bringing his film to the big screen, where I watched it two nights ago. It was a pure labor of love that can be felt in every frame.
That’s what makes its triumphs so celebratory… and its failures so disappointing.
As a boy, Bilal dreamed of becoming a great warrior. He spent many of his young days fighting invisible enemies and winning thrilling victories in his mind. But his dream becomes a nightmare when one day he witnesses his mother killed before he and his sister are sold into slavery.
Though his body is captive, Bilal’s mind and spirit remain free. Not even the brutal slave-owner Umayya and his sadistic son Safwan are enough to break Bilal’s resolve. When news begins to spread through the town of a “New Movement” counteracting Umayya’s idolatry, Bilal discovers a way to free his body and become the great warrior he was always meant to be.
This entire film is a game of Tug-of-War. One the one hand, there are sequence of such animated sophistication that you can hardly believe that they weren’t made by a top-notch American studio. On the other hand, all of the characters’ faces are as inexpressive as mannequins. On the one hand, the main characters carry emotional depth. On the other hand, everyone is one-dimensional and easy to divide into “heroes” and “villains” on sight. On the one hand, this is a great story that isn’t often told on this scale. On the other hand, it’s not very well-written.
The entire film is this frustrating: for every step forward, they take at least one or two steps back. And it’s not just the limitations of the budget, but also those of the film-makers. In addition to the shallow characterizations (the villains are easy to identify because their brows are permanently scowled), the film frequently jumps ahead in time. The story might have worked better as a mini-series – or at least as a better-abridged screenplay – but here, it’s clearly trying to fit a multi-hour story into a 105-min. frame.
And yet, the highs fly very high. The directors seem to have taken their visual cues from the Zack Snyder film collection, but it works to their advantage here. Although the characters’ faces rarely emote, the battle scenes (which get pretty brutal) are thrilling from start to finish. One particularly great sequence involves Bilal’s “sand” dream. I couldn’t even begin to describe it here, but it alone is worth the price of admission.
What’s more, the film is still a better representation of Islam than you’ll ever get from Fox News or Breitbart. For the past 17 years, the makers of this film have watched the media of the world slander the name of their faith. This film puts Islam’s true values – compassion, sympathy, and never seeking revenge – at the forefront of its story. And that’s saying a lot, given that neither “Islam” nor “Muslims” are ever mentioned by name. (Nor is the Prophet Muhammad.)
The advanced screening audience with whom I saw the film was filled with a noticeable number of Muslim families and children. After an endless stream of superhero movies with mostly-White casts, I can see why those parents were so eager to bring their kids to a film like this. Yet there was no audience applause when the film ended. Sure, some walked out saying that they liked it, but I don’t recall anyone being head-over-heels about what they just saw.
Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is a visually stunning depiction of a story that should be told more often. If the film-makers had put as much work into the script as they did into the visuals, I’d be singing the film’s praises all day long.