Film Review: Naz & Maalik

Presumptuous cultural tourism of the worst kind makes up Jay Dockendorf’s unbelievable and offensive contemplation of young black lives that should matter but don’t here, given the miserable handling.
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Where to begin with a film that so prodigally squanders the potential it had as the story of two black and gay Muslim youths in Brooklyn? Set in a post-9/11 world of surveillance, religious paranoia and racial profiling, Naz & Maalik is the kind of movie that used to be described as “ripped from the headlines.” But where those gritty and marvelously pithy Warners pre-code epics were made with skill and dispatch, and liberal lashings of wit from true screenwriters, the young, white writer-director Jay Dockendorf, from the evidence here, is neither a competent writer nor director. I only mention his race because, had he been able to bridge the obvious cultural gap with insight and sensitivity, this would have been an admirable achievement indeed. But his presumptuousness is appalling, not to mention offensive, and in the future he would be well advised to follow that age-old adage, “Write what you know.”

Dockendorf presents shy, low-key Naz (Kerwin Johnson, Jr.) and the more alpha dog, Maalik (Curtiss Cook, Jr.), best friends inching towards becoming lovers, despite their religion. They spend their days cruising around the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, randomly selling lottery tickets and scented oils on the street, and talking. A lot of mostly aimless talking, most of which you cannot hear, due to a combination of shoddy sound recording and, in a disastrous attempt at naturalism, their director’s encouragement of mumbling.

What dialogue you do hear, especially as delivered by the most bogus FBI agent in screen history (Annie Grier, as blonde and perfectly groomed as a TV anchorwoman), who interrogates the boys after she sees them being approached by an undercover cop attempting to sell them a cheap gun, is laughably bad and unconvincing. Lacking any sense of pace or dramatic coherence, Dockendorf haplessly throws all kinds of disparate elements into his muddled concoction: not one but two jabbering (and highly bogus) homeless guys; the homophobia expressed by Naz’s bratty sister and a chubby, devout pal, who discover his sexuality; Muslim religious classes that feel like a stop from a tourist bus; an encounter with a white john which tears the boys apart when Maalik decides to go for the gold.

It all culminates in a rooftop scene with the boys, salaciously semi-clad in their underwear (don’t ask), about to slaughter a chicken which falls to the street, hitting a car that crashes, killing its driver. That should be more than enough to tell you that this exploitative morass is to be avoided at all cost.

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