American Sharia | Movie review by Steve Bennett

American Sharia

Note: This review is from 2015

Movie review by Steve Bennett

See a Muslim in a Hollywood film, and chances are they'll be a terrorist. Which is an understandable annoyance to people like stand-up Omar Regan, who's trying to redress the balance, with his wonderfully named production company Halalywood, and their first output: American Sharia.

What a marvellous idea… only slightly spoiled by by the movie being a real mess. Favourite moments are either the word 'chief' being misspelled on the police boss's office door; or maybe the gratuitous conversation singing the praises of a Muslim dating site, presumably fulfilling a product placement contract.

It's not the only message this action-comedy delivers with heavy hand. A running shoot-out peters out for a discussion that the word 'sharia' means justice delivered fairly, not brutal retribution. That 'jihad' means struggle is also explained. And various other misunderstandings about Islam (and, incidentally, a history of slavery) dropped awkwardly into 'everyday' conversation.

Omar's character Mo is clearly a good guy, though, as on his morning jog the Muslim meets a rabbi and a priest – what is this, some kind of joke? – and exchanges pleasantries. As an actor, he's got the grinning, wisecracking Chris-Tucker-in-Rush-Hour shtick down to a T, while a later crisis-of-confidence scene showcases his range, even if it does nothing for the jumbled plot.

In a typical buddy-cop movie format, he's partnered up with a guy who in initially doesn't like, but comes to respect. Baba Ali's Abdul is a devout Muslim to Mo's more lapsed version. He talks of peace and helping people, an attitude wrapped in a 'harmless idiot' persona. Their dynamic between the two is pretty good, but that's where it ends.

In less typical buddy-cop movie format, they don't really have a crime to solve… except 'prejudice'. And that doesn't make for great car chases.

It's so over-simplified too. Pretty much all the ignorance towards Islam is distilled into Eric Roberts' cartoon villain, a redneck officer called Robinson, rather than being endemic in society and media.

They should probably have known it was him all along. When a woman storms into the Detroit police headquarters and, with lots of 'I'm a very big shot' type over-acting, makes an accusation of harassment, not only does the police 'cheif' come to the front desk to talk to her personally he immediately knows it's Robinson out of god knows how many thousands of cops a city that size must have, and tells him not to be a naughty boy. He doesn't listen

Later the deals with the same problem, by just deciding to lock Robinson up. Just like that. And inside the miscreant learns a little about the Koran…

The cheif is oddly inconsistent, too. At the start he's ignorantly telling Mo he wants someone who 'speaks Muslim', while a few scenes later he's insightfully explaining that Islam is followed by all sorts of different ethnicities. Must have read a book somewhere in between.

Belatedly realising there ought to be a bad guy, the script suddenly introduces a shadowy figure towards the end, a man who seems to have he police chief in his pocket, who plots to kill the Muslim officers (a third one has been collected on the way) and some community activists to because… well, I'm sure he has a very good reason. It seems to be to foment tensions because it'll… No, still nothing. Again the message seems to be that it's random bad apples causing all the problems.

In the 12A certification card at the start of the film, the British Board Of Film Classification includes the unusual alert that it 'contains racial stereotypes'. A warning about the clunky script would have been more fitting.

There are a few funny scenes: a suspect getting away as the cop has to stop to pray mid-arrest; a police line-up featuring only women in niqabs, and the towering deputy cheif pinning the slight Omar against the wall is an, erm, arresting image. But it can't make up for a script that is too often confusing and assorted other problems of low-budget production. The music's intrusive, too, with dialogue often lost beneath what sounds like a royalty-free approximation to a 70s cop film soundtrack.

American Sharia is currently on a UK tour, being shown primarily to the Muslim community, part of an evening that also includes a hardcore, but very effective fundraising drive for orphanages run by the Penny Appeal, raising in one Wembley school hall orders of magnitude more than you'd get from a similar event outside the Islamic community.

This limited circuit is probably where American Sharia will stay, as it's hard to see the movie to making a mainstream crossover. But then early 'blaxploitation' films were hardly artistic masterpieces; taking control of your own screen portrayal has never been an easy path for those marginalised by Hollywood.

Here's a trailer, although many of these scenes were not in the final film, or had been reshot.

Review date: 17 Feb 2015
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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