A day-in-the-life look at the unique experience of being young, gay, black, and Muslim in Brooklyn, “Naz & Maalik” starts off with a relaxed, laid back approach, but sly moments of high-stakes drama and import imbue the otherwise chill vibe with a sense of creeping dread. Anchored by lead performances from newcomers Kerwin Johnson, Jr. and Curtiss Cook, Jr., writer-director Jay Dockendorf’s film is intimate, authentic, and feels decidedly relevant in today’s current context.
Naz (Cook) and Maalik (Johnson) are two best friends kicking it around their hood, hustling selling lotto tickets, prayer cards, and other items, trying to make a little scratch. They bop around, going to prayer, wandering through the park, chatting, philosophizing about life. There are two complications though: Naz and Maalik are sleeping together, which they have to be highly secretive about, and due to a weird encounter with an undercover cop, are being surveilled by a bumbling female FBI agent.
The complications brought on by their interactions with her, including varying stories trying to cover up their relationship, darkens their carefree afternoon. Because they told her different things about their nighttime whereabouts, their closet becomes increasingly tenuous, starting to crumble around them. The relationship between Naz and Maalik is also on thin ice, battered by jealousy, miscommunication, and panic about being found out by their families, or much worse, from law enforcement.
“Naz & Maalik” deftly explores issues of government surveillance of Muslims, the tense relationship between black men and police, sexuality, and Brooklyn’s increasing gentrification, all through the lens of this one day. Setting it in one day is brilliant on the part of Dockendorf, emphasizing the point that, although this might be one very bad day for the boys, it’s also just a part of a reality that they must live with.
The camera work echoes this point, following along with them, often at eye level, street level, bringing the audience along as another participant in their interactions, and also constantly locating them within the confines of their environment. This handheld camera work is juxtaposed with a few shots that evoke their being watched, including one overhead shot of them selling on the street that mimics the opening of Coppola’s surveillance classic “The Conversation.” And it must be said that the cinematography is beautiful, capturing Brooklyn in a saturated clarity.
The film manages to link together many moving story parts, fleeting moments that set off a domino effect of events, unknown to the main characters. While the FBI surveillance is an important aspect of their experience, and their day, setting many of the wheels in motion, their interactions with Agent Sarah Mickell (Annie Grier) aren’t quite as successful as the ones between the two of them, or with other characters. She’s awkward and seems seems completely misguided, out of her depth, randomly targeting them. That very well may be the point, but it doesn’t totally work within the story. Still, the way the loose ends get tied up, even with a dark and ambiguous ending, is impressive.
In addition to Dockendorf’s ability with storytelling and style, much praise must be paid to newcomers Cook and Johnson as the lead duo. They feel so at ease on screen, and vacillate between romance, best buds, and lover’s quarrels. They code switch between devout Muslims, urban teens, and gay youth, constantly measuring how to present their identities to the world and to each other. Johnson, particularly, is a soulful presence, with his struggle and anger bubbling constantly under the surface. A refreshing and relevant cinematic representation, “Naz & Maalik” is an impressive debut for filmmaker and actors. [B+]