Naz and Maalik, Opens in NYC Friday, Jan 22
by Dwight Casimere
Director Jay Dockendorf's first feature, Naz and Maalik is a light, breezy look at a day in the life of two freshman college aged African American teens living in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, whose lives are complicated by the fact that they are black, gay and Muslim. Taking place sometime in post 911 New York, the film attempts to shed light on the growing pervasiveness of unauthorized surveillance of Muslim citizens and the taboo against the homosexual lifestyle, especially among orthodox religious groups. In the shadow of today's presidential campaign, with one of the leading candidates calling for barriers to Muslim immigration and veiled code words that beat the drum for increase scrutiny of the indigenous Muslim population, Naz and Maalik, which is debuting to audiences in select theaters beginning this weekend, is particularly resonant.
The lead actors, Kerwin Johnson Jr. (Naz) and Curtiss Cook Jr. (Maalik), handle the characters with just the right touch of offhand, devil-may-care likability. They're just a couple of young dudes happy to be alive, spending their time hustling lottery tickets, religious tarot cards and scented snake oils on the streets of Brooklyn. The items they sell, ostensibly, Maalik says, to save money for college tuition, are purchased by passersby. The items are practically worthless, but people buy them anyway, largely because they are charmed by the youth's sense of humor and carefree attitudes. They're a bright light in an otherwise grim environment.
The characters of Naz and Maalik are fun to watch, even if very little of what they do makes any sense. But such are youth! They're actually quite refreshing, and their portrayal gives an appealing patina to a story that could otherwise turn very dark in a hurry.
There are references to the weighty subject matter of the film. The two are closeted gay in a community that largely frowns upon it, especially their devout Muslim family, (The opening scene shows their outraged sister questioning them about a used condom found in her bed) and the local Imam (Muslim priest) who consistently admonishes them about the gay lifestyle, hinting that he already knows, no matter how much they try to hide it.
Oh yeah, about the surveillance thing. That comes out pretty early in the film too, with a shabby looking guy, played by Bradley Brian Custer (whose obviously a narc of some kind) offering to sell them an illegal gun, which the guys playfully refuse. They at first pretended to be interested, then faked him off. Their cat and mouse game, however, backfires, and lands them squarely in the cross-hairs of an over-eager rookie FBI agent, Sarah Mikell (Annie Grier). She questions them about their whereabouts the night before and, of course, the two bungle it by giving conflicting stories in order to hide the fact that they were sleeping together. That just gets them deeper into Mikell's psychological dragnet. Outside of the fact that they're selling petty stuff illegally on the street, she can't seem to find anything else wrong with them, but she's determined to find something. Her's is the only performance that doesn't quite ring true, but, that may have been the director's objective, to make her character a cardboard cutout caricature, totally out of place in the gritty reality.
The film sort of ends on a flat note of irony. I guess that's part of the director's point as well, that none of what's happening now, the unwarranted and unlawful scrutiny of religious groups and the marginalizing of certain lifestyles is counterproductive, at best, and makes very little, if any, sense.
The steady cam work of cinematographer Jake McGee, give the film a fluid, almost dance-like quality that works well with the loose, almost improvisational acting by the lead characters.
Production designer Dylan Metzger really brings the mean streets of Bed Stuy to life in a way that shows their humanity and diversity and the score by Adam Gunther captures just the right mood throughout. Kudos to casting director Holly Buczek for finding the two neophyte actors who play the lead characters as if they were living in their skin from day one.
The film is a little thin for such a weighty subject but, given the Twitter generation, with their short attention span and penchant for condensing weighty concepts into a 120 character haiku, Naz and Maalik may be just the right vehicle to spark discussion on a subject that otherwise might get swept under the carpet.