I found the story behind the making of Bilal’s Stand
far more captivating than the actual film itself. The popular proverb that begins “it takes a village” is certainly applicable to what is essentially a community-developed film project, set in contemporary Detroit, and based on the real-life experiences of writer-director Sultan Sharrief
, who, through a youth-empowerment program, hired local high school kids (mostly African American) to work on the production.
The end product has heart. It’s a brisk, ultra low-budget feature, with some charm, that has the potential to be significantly improved with a much stronger cast of actors, and more subtlety in its overall message(s).
There’s a very familiar story in Bilal’s Stand – a young black man from a working class family is forced to choose between going off to college, or staying local to help keep his fatherless family financially afloat.
It’s a familiar story, but not necessarily one that’s been documented in fiction film narratives very much; and for that reason, I’m glad it exists.
However, that fact, combined with its heartwarming back-story, aren’t quite able to make up for the films many flaws – notably its amateur actors, clumsy, low production values, and heavy-handed, even melodramatic writing, loaded with a running expository narration, and the use of initially humorous squiggle drawings and text overlays to emphasize plot points throughout.
I say “initially humorous” because they wear out their welcome quickly.
The Bilal in Bilal’s Stand (played by Julian Gant) is an upright black Muslim teen, who works at his family’s taxi stand in Detroit, Michigan. “The Stand,” as they affectionately call it, has been the family’s social and financial hub for the past 60 years, and Bilal is in line to carry the torch. But Bilal, who burns the midnight oil to keep up both the family business and his grades, develops a secret life designed to enable him to attend a top university. When his two lives collide, Bilal is forced to decide between keeping “The Stand” alive, and living the only life he has ever known, or taking a shot at social mobility.
The fact that Bilal comes from a somewhat strict black Muslim family is suggested to be an important element of his character and worldview; but not long after that component is introduced, it’s abandoned, and really has no bearing on the overall story.
Later, a trifecta of unexpected setbacks, occurring successively – a death, an arrest and a pregnancy – while allegedly based on real life events, felt unnecessary and unrealistic.
The initial set up hooked me, but there really was no pay-off, and about an hour into it, by the expected pregnancy announcement, I’d begun to wiggle in my seat, looking at my wall clock after every musical interlude/transition, of which there were several – many of them not very well conceived and/or unnecessary.
After about 90 minutes of melodramatic and moralistic turns, platitudes uttered, with a few flashes of genuine freshness, the film ends, predictably, on a sentimental high, and I’m sure you can take a guess what that is.
According to the filmmaker, the film was shot with 16mm film, however, I wouldn’t have guessed that if it wasn’t said.
So the question here is whether a film should be judged on its merits as a piece of commercial film art, or whether its noble intentions, or the miracle of its existence should determine its value, even when it’s handled as clumsily as this one is.
I’d say that the filmmaker himself answered the question in an interview he did while the film was screening around the country, when he actually likened his own film to an after-school special, with the intention of using it as a teaching tool to educational or low-income community-based outlets.
At least he knew exactly what he had, and wasn’t fooling himself to believe otherwise.
If my review sounds like I hated the film, I didn’t. However, I can’t say that I loved it either. More like a shrug. As I said, it’s a story from a marginalized POV, that has its few charming moments, and is a heartwarming story of survival that can be appreciated, as long as you can get past its glaring weaknesses.
Here’s the trailer for Bilal’s Stand as a reminder: