Anytime a movie with a Muslim protagonist comes out, the Muslim community collectively holds its breath. Will this film perpetuate misconceptions about us that have run rampant in media for decades, or will it offer a fresh perspective showing the complexity of being a Muslim in the 21st century?
These are some of the questions I had when I first heard about the new movie Hala, streaming now on Apple TV Plus. Written and directed by Minhal Baig, it's a film about a 17-year-old Pakistani American girl struggling to balance her Muslim upbringing with her social life and identity as a high schooler. As a Muslim American who started wearing a hijab at age 11, I was initially excited to see a young Muslim woman take center stage -- looking badass with a skateboard, no less. At the same time, I had the usual apprehension I feel when a new movie or TV show comes out. Will Islam and autonomy be made to appear mutually exclusive? Will this be yet another film where characters of color are burdened with pleasing everyone but themselves?
There's no shortage of one-dimensional, stereotypical depictions of Muslims on TV and in movies. In the rare event we're even represented in the first place, we're often portrayed as oppressed or, worse, the oppressors. Homeland and 24, for example, have been widely criticized for depicting Muslims as the enemy.
Streaming platforms like Apple TV Plus, Netflix and Hulu, with their openness for new kinds of content (and lots of it), offer an opportunity to present fresh stories and diverse perspectives. That's what I hoped Hala would do: tell a story about a girl exploring her identity without leaning into stereotypes. Instead, the film delivered a story in line with the oft-repeated narrative that Muslim women are shackled to tradition and must break free to attain peace and happiness.
Hala's titular character (played by Geraldine Viswanathan) struggles with something all teenagers grapple with: identity. The film specifically explores whether one's true identity can coexist with religious and cultural background. As an Arab-American Muslim with immigrant parents, balancing seemingly contradictory traditions and expectations is something I've navigated practically my whole life. Figuring out which ideas and practices tie into who I am is an ongoing challenge. One thing I regularly deal with, for example, is trying to maintain strong familial ties while also upholding American values of independence. I know that keeping harmony with yourself, your family and your community can often be a complicated task because of conflicting ideals.
Hala, who wears a hijab, struggles to connect with her mother, who's constantly berating her for missing prayers and hanging out with boys at the skatepark. There's an overarching pressure from her parents to marry a "good Muslim man," and she must contend with minor inconveniences like having to change for gym in a bathroom stall instead of among other girls in the locker room (something neither I nor my hijab-wearing friends ever did in high school, by the way).
Much of the film focuses on Hala's desire to be with Jesse Ross (Jack Kilmer), a blond, white classmate who brings excitement, joy and understanding into her life. With him, Hala can joke around, hang out at the skatepark and run around a playground. She doesn't have to take on the persona of an obedient Muslim girl or follow outdated rules simply for the sake of tradition, as is the case at home.
These struggles are real for many young people growing up with immigrant parents, particularly in the West. It can be difficult to contend with cultural differences and balance personal needs and desires with what will please family. This film does a good job portraying the nuances of familial relationships, especially given the differences in upbringing between Hala and her parents, through believable dialogue and realistic scenarios. They don't see eye to eye on issues like marriage and autonomy, but we see Hala try to overlook those differences to keep the peace.
Unfortunately, though, so much of this film is built around the idea that happiness rests on abandoning tradition that viewers are ultimately left with a one-dimensional perspective of what it's like to balance tradition and modernity. We're presented with the notion that being a practicing Muslim and being happy are at odds, and that the only way to achieve personal peace is to leave certain elements of faith and tradition behind.
That narrative can be dangerous in a world where misconceptions of Muslim women's (lack of) autonomy are frustratingly pervasive. For decades, we've been inundated with portrayals of women who were forced to cover up and sit quietly on the sidelines. The hijab is often linked to oppression. Rarely do we see Muslim women who fearlessly tackle obstacles and keep external forces from defining them. A few recent mainstream films and TV shows have taken steps to change this, including NCIS: Los Angeles and Blindspot, which present more nuanced portrayals of Muslim women who aren't oppressed. But it was disappointing to see Hala fall into the same trope we've seen far too often: Muslim women lacking agency so long as they are confined by faith.
Given today's often divisive political and cultural climate, it's important to consider the impact these representations can have on viewers' interpretations of the faith. Will a general audience know arranged marriages aren't mandated in Islam? Will they know that forcing someone to follow the tenets of the religion is forbidden? Many people already struggle to separate cultural practices from religious ones, and this film, tragically, doesn't make those distinctions any clearer.
The film has already sparked criticism on Twitter from some Muslims, who are upset with its plotline and its depiction of women.
"Here comes yet another film about the poor brown Muslim woman who only finds happiness through the white man's gaze because God forbid her faith & culture play any role other than giving her parents accents and a life she feels stuck in," tweeted Huffington Post reporter Rowaida Abdelaziz. "FIRE EVERYONE AND BRING ON THE HOT TAKES."
Some people suggested examples of women defying stereotypes, like a personal trainer and a politician, who should be featured in a movie.
While I'm glad there's a film like Hala that places Muslim characters at the forefront, I can't help but worry it'll reinforce misconceptions about Islam so many of us have been fighting our whole lives. It's one thing to show the struggles of a Muslim American teenager -- those experiences are raw and real and relatable. But it's another to paint a black and white picture that suggests being a typical American teenager and a practicing Muslim are so at odds.
Of course, it's impossible for one film to capture the varied experiences of all Muslim women, and Hala tells an important story that surely resonates with many. But I would've hoped we'd moved on from the repressed-Muslim-American trope by now.
Still, I'm optimistic. Perhaps this film is a stepping stone to one day seeing more Muslim protagonists who aren't defined -- or restricted -- by their faith.
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Originally published Dec. 3.