Naz & Maalik

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday March 28, 2016

Naz & Maalik

We're used to the meme of the triple burden of being black, gay, and Christian. But what about the even more burdensome proposition of being black, gay, and Muslim -- in post-9/11 America?

That's the idea writer-director Jay Dockendorf tackles with "Naz & Maalik," a movie that begins and ends with bookended shakedowns -- one at the hands of a younger sister, and one inflicted by a justice system that penalizes trivial misdeeds and criminalizes cocky teen behavior while ignoring the deeper ways in which the world is unraveling around us.

Dockendorf's camera follows a pair of Muslim teens around Brooklyn for a single day. Naz (Kerwin Johnson, Jr.) begins his morning with an interrogation conducted by his younger sister Cala (Ashleigh Awusie) after she discovers a condom in the bathroom waste bin. Cala assumes that her brother has been having sex with a girl; her moral outrage is appeased with a $25 bribe.

But Naz hasn't been sleeping with any girls. Rather, it's his best friend, Maalik (Curtiss Cook, Jr.), who has captured his romantic attentions. Maalik is a typical guy, unfazed by the night before and eager for a repeat. Naz, by contrast, struggles with doubts and fears, terrified that his parents will discover that he's gay and throw him out. Naz isn't the sort who would thrive on the streets; he makes a tidy profit there, selling snacks and perfumes along with lottery tickets, but he saves the money he earns for college.

It's during the boys' neighborhood peregrinations that they are approached by a sketchy guy who offers to sell them a gun. The teens evince no serious interest, but the fact that one of them is wearing a Muslim cap is enough to turn the brief interaction into the kind of "suspicious" activity that warrants the attention of the FBI. When Special Agent Micelle (Annie Grier) starts probing the boys' movements, she steps right into their secrets and puts their lives as they know them in peril.

The film is well produced, and has a loose-limbed, meandering structure that fits the aimlessness of the post-school and post-prayer hours Naz and Maalik spend together, wandering the neighborhood, selling their wares, flirting, fighting, making up, and worrying about the future. They talk about whether the world is getting better or worse; they debate the merits of acting in a selfless and charitable manner, versus living selfishly. They sound, by and large, like two smart teens perched on the threshold of adulthood. The question isn't whether they are good kids, but whether the world is good enough to support and sustain them.

The film gets a little long as it passes the hour mark, and the adventures Naz and Maalik get into -- including a chicken dinner gone awry, which they intend to prepare using a live chicken -- start to feel less naturalistic and more forced, even as their recurring arguments start to wear thin. The final moments don't tie things up, but they do allow the film a bleak punchline that will provoke thought... and maybe a rueful grin.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.