Back in August 2011, well before GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump called for the “surveillance of certain mosques”—and later, a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.—the Associated Press ran an eye-opening exposé on the New York Police Department’s efforts to infiltrate Muslim communities in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In partnership with the CIA, the NYPD established what came to be known as the Demographic Unit in 2003 with the central aim of tracking homegrown Islamic terrorism. According to the New York Times, “plainclothes detectives looked for ‘hot spots’ of radicalization that might give the police an early warning about terrorist plots.” These undercover officers were known as “rakers,” and were circulated in New York’s Muslim neighborhoods as part of its mapping program. The NYPD also used informants, known as “mosque crawlers, in order to monitor sermons. The civil liberties-violating program, which targeted American Muslims based solely on their ethnicity, was disbanded in 2013 and resulted in zero terrorism-related charges.
These troubling incidents have inspired the new film Naz & Maalik. Directed by first-timer Jay Dockendorf, it follows a day in the life of Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr.) and Maalik (Curtiss Cook Jr.), two black Muslim teens who hawk lottery tickets and oils on the street in order to raise money for college. The kids from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn find themselves profiled by an undercover cop who attempts to sell them a stolen gun. He misinterprets their sarcasm for interest, which puts the young men on the radar of an FBI agent (Annie Grier) who’s recently been assigned to the neighborhood.
California native Dockendorf was a student at Yale when he first remembered reading about the controversial Demographic Unit. Then, in a follow-up story, the AP uncovered the NYPD and FBI’s joint spying program on college Muslim student associations—or “MSAs,” according to police—at New York City schools as well as the University of Pennsylvania and Yale. In 2008, the NYPD even sent an undercover officer on a whitewater rafting trip with 18 Muslim college students from the City College of New York.
“Reading about NYPD and FBI surveillance at college Muslim youth groups, one of those colleges mentioned was Yale, and one of my colleagues at the newspaper was a young Muslim woman who was associated with the group,” Dockendorf recalls. “I was outraged that this amazing young woman’s integrity was being questioned. It gave me chills.”
Dockendorf, 27, who worked for the New Haven Independent while attending Yale and published a short documentary for The New York Times, moved to Bed-Stuy after graduation and found himself further intrigued by his roommate.
“I randomly lived with a guy in Bed-Stuy who was a Muslim man that was still closeted to his family,” says Dockendorf. “He came out to me and his friends. I asked if I could interview him for the basis of this screenplay, and he agreed.”He adds, “The world didn’t need another story about a young white guy moving to New York, and I felt that this was a story that needed to be told.”
The film opens with Naz’s sister discovering a used condom in their bathroom wastebasket. “It’s haram,” she tells him, or a sinful and forbidden action according to the Quran. We soon learn that the condom came from the shy Naz losing his virginity to the more outgoing Maalik, and that the young lovers have hidden their romance—and sexuality—from friends and family.
In addition to interviewing and trailing his roommate—along with other closeted Muslims in Brooklyn—Dockendorf took cues from other gay-themed films like The Wedding Banquet, Paris Is Burning, and Happy Together, as well as the Channel 4 documentary Gay Muslims. Dockendorf and his two talented stars, Kerwin Johnson Jr. and Curtiss Cook Jr., also observed many Muslim prayer services at Brooklyn mosques.
Naz & Maalik mostly consists of the watchable pair strolling through the city and discussing life, love, and Islam—borrowing a page from Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise series. And despite appearing as unthreatening as can be, the boys’ clandestine romantic encounters only serve to heighten the FBI agent’s suspicions. As the FBI agent closes in on them, their bond begins to unravel. Xenophobia is, it seems, the enemy of love.
While the film clocks in at a brisk 80 minutes, the making of Naz & Maalik was far from a walk in the park. After about nine months of script work, Dockendorf raised a small bit of money—as well as an additional $37,000 on Kickstarter—and began filming in September 2013. They shot for 21 days before hiring an editor, Andrew Hafitz (The Last Days of Disco), who was “the only vet among this kids’ club,” says Dockendorf. Hafitz edited the movie for nine months, and then the rough cut was submitted to the Tribeca Film Institute, eventually receiving a $25,000 grant. Dockendorf used the money to shoot for another seven days in June 2014. The film was finished in September 2014 with a total budget between $150,000 and $200,000, and submitted to festivals. It made its world premiere at SXSW in March 2015, and was acquired one month later by Wolfe Releasing.
Despite the fact that most of its footage was shot in mid-2013, Naz & Maalik is as timely as ever. It even includes a sequence of a homeless man on the subway ranting about how “Trump is a chump.” Mind you, this was well before the elaborately-coiffed blowhard’s xenophobia-powered presidential run.
“I didn’t think it was possible for the American people to be this impressionable or concerned with something [a terrorist attack] that’s about as likely as getting struck by lightning,” says Dockendorf. “That’s not to downplay the importance of keeping America safe, but the way Trump’s proposing to do it is completely ass-backwards and un-American.”
He pauses. “This country’s always been a refuge. I hope it stays that way.”