One day in the life of a pair of Brooklyn teenagers moves beyond their typical routine to mark an emotional turning point in the lives of the two best friends in Naz & Maalik; an engaging new film from screenwriter/director Jay Dockendorf. The film’s dynamic script is based on a first-person account from one of Dockendorf’s former neighbors; a gay Muslim man who revealed his own experience as a teenager living in Brooklyn, at a time when the NYPD and FBI were spying on Muslims across the country. In Bed-Stuy (Bedford Stuyvesant, a heavily African American neighborhood of Brooklyn) in particular, COPs would infiltrate mosques with undercover agents, coerce civilians arrested for petty crimes into becoming informants and conduct door-to-door interviews with Muslim citizens in front of their homes. The overbearing presence of the police created a charged environment, and a similar atmosphere of consistent tension infiltrates this bittersweet coming-of-age story that is expertly directed and acted.
Portrayed by Curtiss Cook Jr. (Maalik) and Kerwin Johnson Jr. (Naz), two young actors both making their feature film debut in these roles, Naz and Maalik spend their days together, earning cash by selling Lotto tickets, Saint cards, candy and scented oils on the streets of their neighborhood, as well as while riding the subway lines. Their faith is also made evident, as they make a stop at a local mosque during their day to pray with the faithful. Their bond of friendship is fast and tight, and, as we learn early on, their relationship has only just taken a romantic turn — something that Naz is way more comfortable with than Maalik. As devout Muslims, their love is forbidden, and it doesn’t help that Maalik’s bratty younger sister has already threatened to “out” the couple to their parents. As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough.
And then there’s the matter of that FBI agents that starts following the boys’ every move…
As their story unfolds naturally, Naz & Maalik takes on many hot-button issues — racial profiling, religion, sexuality — as the streets and subway trains of Brooklyn advance the backstory of just who these kids are without a need for superfluous narrative dialogue. In fact, to suggest that Brooklyn is also a main character in the film is not out of line.
Naz & Maalik isn’t so much a film about easy resolution as it is about tackling life’s curve balls and trying to stay true to yourself and your beliefs while also embracing the uncertainty of new love. Naz and Maalik are extremely likable characters and their story is both straightforward and nuanced, and highly engaging overall. The film’s original score, also written by Dockendorf is also fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about this film.
After Debuting at NYC’s Cinema Village, Naz & Maalik is currently available via Wolfe on DVD and Video On Demand.