Here is a short write-up on my thoughts about the new film, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero. Of course, I’m absolutely biased, being an artist and a lover of anything animation. Plus, I’m always excited to see the stories of people of color brought to life. So…Bilal is an animated film loosely based on the life of the legendary companion of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Bilal ibn Rabah. He was an Afro-Arab born into captivity in 7th century Mecca. He is also one earliest converts to Islam and was persecuted for this faith. He is most famously known for his melodious voice and as the first mu’adhin, or caller to the prayer. The film is a 2015 English-language Arabic 3D computer-animated action–adventure film produced by Barajoun Entertainment and co-directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal.
So now that you got a little backstory, let’s start with the obvious.
The visuals are amazing! If you are a lover of animation like me, then this movie is a treat for the eyes. The details were so crisp and sharp that I wondered if real-life footage was interspersed between the animation scenes. From the details of a stone floor to the tiniest grains of sand in the desert, every frame contained beautiful artistry. So yeah, there was lots of delicious visual candy. The fight scenes (yep, there are fight scenes, earning that PG-13 rating) are pretty intense and so is the sound and musical score. It has all the feel of a big blockbuster Disney or Pixar-like animation film.
For Muslims who are expecting an exact retelling of the life of Bilal ibn Rabah…don’t. The film makes it clear in the very beginning. Whenever you see the words, “inspired by” or “based on,” prepare yourself for some artistic license. At that point, the viewer is expected to suspend belief and just roll with the story. But for Muslims who know about the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, this may be very hard. He is such an esteemed figure in Islam so some will be put off by the story’s “embellishments.”
I also have to mention his significance for African American Muslims. Although he was not the only sahabah (companion) of African descent, he is one of the most prominent. His life as a former slave speaks to our legacy as African-descended people in this country. Our enslaved Muslim ancestors were brought to these shores. And like Bilal, they were prohibited from practicing Islam. From the mid-1970s to the early ‘80s, the community of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed (may God bless him) identified themselves as Bilalians. So for us, it’s very personal. It’s more than just seeing an animated retelling of one of our beloved figures. It speaks to our legacy as Black American Muslims.
The film touches on some very unsettling and poignant truths about man’s inhumanity to man. Oppression, slavery, and war are depicted throughout. So the PG-13 rating is warranted. In the center of it all is a man who is discovering his beliefs and questioning the status quo of Meccan society. And it’s around these points that the film gets somewhat murky. How does a film tell the story of an important Islamic figure without explicitly mentioning Islam? Bilal ibn Rabah converses with Abu Bakr as Siddique (may God be pleased with them) about a “movement” for equality and brotherhood. The subject of Islam, or religion, is sort of skipped around. And while I was aware that the film was catered to appeal to a wide audience of those who are not Muslim, it still seemed a bit odd that God was only mentioned a few times.
The words Islam, Qur’an, and Muhammad are never mentioned. I understand the difficulty in talking about Islam without coming off as preachy or self-righteous, but can we, as artists, talk about Islam without talking about Islam? Many of us are struggling with that balance between telling a good story that is illuminated by the high ideals of Islam. It is possible to do this. I feel sympathetic towards the directors in that struggle, being a writer and artist myself. But some Muslims won’t like this, seeing it as a watering down of the message in order to please the masses. And there is no athan, or call to prayer–which is what I was holding out for–as this is what most people know about him.
Also, most historical works describe him as an Ethiopian with kinky hair and dark skin. Some viewers may feel that there is a bit of whitewashing taking place in comparison to the film’s depiction of his honey brown skin and eyes. For some who read this, they may think, “Who cares what he looked like or if his skin was dark enough?” All I can say is that representation matters. It’s important to know that Muslims of African descent are important figures in the history of Islam, not mere figures on the periphery, as detractors of our faith often suggest.
Despite this, I recommend that everyone see the movie. We already know that no film can fully capture a person’s life, and certainly not the inspirational life of Bilal ibn Rabah. But I see this film as a small step. InshaAllah, our teenagers may watch this film and aspire to become filmmakers themselves. We definitely need more Muslim voices in the film industry. Let this be the movie that will challenge our youth to build upon so we can look forward to more exciting films in the future.