Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s New Muslim Cool (IMDB), part of the upcoming season of PBS’s documentary series, P.O.V., focuses on Hamza Perez, a Puerto Rican rapper and one-time drug dealer as he follows his spiritual journey as a young Muslim and budding community activist. We follow Perez as he and several other young Muslims open a mosque in Pittsburgh’s North Side, and through Perez’s own personal journey, first as a single father raising two children, and then as he meets, falls in love with, and marries his new wife. Given some of Perez’s experiences, it would have been easy for New Muslim Cool (NMC) to offer yet another critique of the abuses of the Patriot Act, and while that is an implicit storyline, what came across for me was Perez’s sincerity about his calling, his gentleness with family and friends, and his desire for inter-faith dialogue and for improving the community where he lives.
NMC opens with members of Hamza’s family describing his conversion. Although he grew up in a Catholic family, his mother (and others in his family) see his conversion as a stabilizing force in his life and emphasize that if it weren’t for his faith, he might be dealing drugs or in jail. Instead, he has become active in trying to speak out against illegal drugs, both through his rap music and, later, through a jailhouse ministry and through speaking to community groups. Usually this entails trying to reach out to low-end drug dealers to convey to them that they are being exploited, in part, he reasons, because drug users already have a number of institutions in place that are ready to help them, while dealers do not (at one point, he offers a rough sketch of the argument made in Freakonomics about the economic model of drug dealing).
In seeking to fulfill this calling, Perez faces some of the predictable forms of harassment that have become commonplace thanks to the Patriot Act and to the post-9/11 paranoia. His mosque in Pittsburgh is raided and becomes the object of increasing surveillance. His security clearance to speak to inmates at a local prison is revoked, possibly in part due to an interview he gave when he was younger and trying to sound tough in an interview about his rap music. These actions ultimately lead Perez to seek help from the ACLU in order to protect his First Amendment rights. And while these events doplay an important role in Perez’s story, Taylor submerges them somewhat, choosing to emphasize instead Perez’s personal journey and his desire to create dialogue with others. In fact, one of the more memorable sequences shows Perez working with a Jewish woman on a literary magazine that would publish poetry by teenagers of all faiths. More crucially, we see Perez at home, interacting with his new wife, playing with his kids, being a dad, struggling to pack an unwieldy baby shower gift in the back of his minivan, essentially aspiring to and fulfilling a certain version of the American Dream.
This subtext was clearly a goal of Taylor’s. In an interview on the PBS website, she explains that she sought to use Perez and the hip-hop hook to interrogate the idea that there is a “clash of civilizations between Muslims and non-Muslims.” And I think that comes across well. The film does come across as a bit episodic in places. Taylor acknowledges that the raid never really provided an “Erin Brockovich moment” that could have provided the film a more dramatic, politicized narrative, but as an attempt to humanize Hamza and his family and the community in which he lives, it works impressively well.
In the spirit of New Muslim Cool’s emphasis on cross-cultural and inter-faith engagement and community and civic engagement, the filmmakers and P.O.V. are in the process of organizing a campus and community tour, in addition to using social media tools to encourage audiences to support the film (one cool idea: their “Recession-Buster Film Festival,” which encourages people to schedule screenings in community centers when the film airs on PBS on June 23).