Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Black & Muslim & Gay & Under FBI surveillance -- whew! Jay Dockendorf's NAZ & MAALIK

Yet another of those movies said to be inspired by "true events," NAZ & MAALIK, the new Brooklyn-set film written and directed by Jay Dockendorf (shown below), certainly gives its two eponymous heroes plenty to contend with. Yet, instead of treating this rather full plate -- race, religion, sexuality and law enforcement harassment -- as something full of drama and/or melodrama, the filmmaker instead offers it up (with the rather embarrassing exception of  how he handles the FBI surveillance) in a realistic, if somewhat romantic, documentary style.

On the one hand, it's refreshing to see black, gay Muslims treated with the kind of honesty and respect we might see in other movies featuring straight, white Christians or Jews. Plus, the lovely performances by the two leads -- Curtiss Cook, Jr. (below, left, as Maalik) and Kerwin Johnson, Jr. (below, right, as Naz) -- gives the movie what little juice it has, bringing us over to the side of these two young men and keeping us there, for awhile, at least. The movie begins with some promise: a blackmailing sister, its Bed-Sty background, and a probably mildly-illegal trade by the two boys who re-sell Lotto tickets on the street. One can appreciate Dockendorf's wish to engulf some realism, but he spends so much time with repetitive and finally not-so-enlightening Lotto-tickets episodes that we soon long to go elsewhere.

We do manage to get into a local mosque, only briefly, and into the homes of the kids, but we don't learn nearly as much as we could from all this (the dialog, while often sounding "real" is also alternately expository and a little tiresome). Mostly we spend time with the two boys, watching Maalik push for more physical intimacy, as Naz backs away.

Many of the scenes smack of too much overt exposition, and once the FBI gets involved they smack of amateur hour, as well. I don't question that an agent might possibly pull a gun on the suspects while questioning them on the street, but as shown here, this scene is unreal and embarrassing.

The biggest problem is that the movie has no momentum; it simply wanders. When some momentum finally comes, it is provided by, of all things, a chicken. The reason for the chicken and way the final scenes add up also seem more problematic and "managed" than they are believable. And while this lack of momentum does help the movie resist melodrama, unfortunately it resists any real drama, too. And then, instead of ending, it simply stops.

I applaud the moviemaker's tackling of themes this weighty and the performances of his two lead actors. This is Dockendorf's first full-length film, so perhaps we'll see more and better in time to come.

From Wolfe Releasing and running 86 minutes, after a successful LGBT film festival exposure, the movie has its theatrical debut in New York City at the Cinema Village this Friday, January 22, with a DVD and digital release from Wolfe Video fast following on Tuesday, January 26.

No comments: