It’s not a good sign when it’s easy to find parking in a city’s downtown—that had been one of my first thoughts upon moving to Allentown, PA when I started teaching at Muhlenberg College in 2009, and the thought returned one night in November when I arrived at the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Center to lead a talkback after a screening of the film Naz & Maalik. While personally convenient, the ability to find a parking spot right in front of one’s destination in Allentown continues to be a sign of the city’s failure to develop a thriving retail sector, nightlife, and cultural scene. In the center of downtown, there are numerous empty storefronts, and after people leave their offices at the end of the workday, the sidewalks empty out.
On this November evening, my phone navigation told me to turn into an alley with an open construction site, which didn’t look promising for a community center, but I did and soon saw a rainbow flag peeking out of a flat façade rowhouse on a dark, narrow block. I parked on the nearest adjoining street, another quiet street of rowhomes. Stepping inside the Bradbury-Sullivan was such a contrast from its hidden, unassuming exterior: light wood floors and new windows gave the space an airy feeling, books and art lined the walls, and it was designed with a split level so that as you entered, you could also see the second floor.
That night, we were watching Naz & Maalik, an independent feature film directed by Jay Dockendorf, screened as part of the center’s Reel Queer Film Series. There was an audience of about 15 people from the city, who appeared mostly middle-aged and white, and 4 students from Muhlenberg College, who were of different races and sat together in the back. Muhlenberg and Allentown have a classic town/gown divide: on campus, we talk about the “Muhlenberg bubble” and how difficult it is to get students off campus and into the downtown.
I watched the first few minutes of the film a little anxiously, not knowing what to expect from a low-budget indie film which had gotten a somewhat dismissive review from Variety due to its production quality. But I soon settled into the meandering rhythm of the film, which follows two teenage best friends on their rounds through Brooklyn. Naz and Maalik go to school, goof off, go to the mosque, try to sell trinkets on the street, and experiment with their emerging romantic feelings for each other. Ironically, it is public spaces like sidewalks and subway cars where the boys can be affectionate with each other, while domestic spaces require them to hide their relationship. I appreciated the ordinariness and quirky humor of the film, which contrasts with the moment that Naz and Maalik get noticed by an FBI agent because of their evasive behavior. They are only trying to hide their relationship, but they are drawn into the post-9/11 scrutiny of anyone Muslim. This plot device makes a nice use of coincidence: it dramatizes the way that ordinary people get caught up in surveillance, the way that evasive behavior or minor lies can be taken the wrong way and swept up in larger contexts of racial and religious profiling.
After the film ended, I made a few remarks along these lines and then asked the audience to respond. At first, the older adults talked exclusively while the Muhlenberg students were quiet. The adults appreciated the exploration of first love and of the struggle to come out in a religious family; some wanted to tease out aspects of the plot they didn’t understand or felt weren’t developed enough. These types of “gut” responses are typical of what I hear at community screenings, as opposed to classroom settings, where we tend to discourage “like/dislike” reactions to films. In a setting like this, I am particularly sensitive to a predominantly older, white audience criticizing a film about two teenagers of color along the lines of not liking the ending because it was negative or ambiguous. Naz & Maalik ends with the teenagers breaking up and Naz getting a ticket for riding a bicycle on a subway platform. “Couldn’t we have a more uplifting ending? Things are so depressing these days,” one audience member said, as though the movie’s purpose was to cheer them up. I view my job at these moments as helping viewers transform these emotional reactions into intellectual understanding; to this comment, I suggested that the movie was attempting to document a truth that young men of color live with, that their actions are constantly surveilled, and that this scene is meant to signal Naz’s return to an everyday level of police harassment, in contrast to the less-common entanglement with the FBI. Up until this point, the Muhlenberg students had been quiet, but I saw them nodding as I made this point, and two of them contributed thoughts about the way this film related to national discussions on race and policing. The students stayed after the formal discussion broke up to talk more about the film with another professor and me, also mentioning how nice it was to get off campus and into the actual city.
Beyond any of the individual points that were discussed, the evening was a powerful reminder of how education—in its broadest sense—is activism. Community-based film screenings are meaningful spaces of learning and exchange because they provide space and time for people to discuss films with people they don’t know, rather than just file silently out of the theater and keep their thoughts inside their head. Viewers can articulate their gut reactions, which are often simple like/dislike, but via a facilitated discussion, those comments become ways to discover what social realities the films are representing, as well as ways to understand the preconceived notions that often lie beneath our liking or disliking a film. A film like Naz & Maalik is ideal for bringing different groups together to learn from each other and learn from a film because of its intersectionality: the older white queer viewers identified with the characters’ struggles of being in the closet, but needed help processing their experiences as black male teenagers being policed, while the younger students of color in the audience were quicker to understand that experience but benefited from hearing the older audience members voice perspectives on coming out that were filtered through their generational experiences. And in a city like Allentown, which struggles to maintain the constant stream of cultural programming and progressive social events that is a given in large cities, an evening like this, with 20 strangers sitting on folding chairs in a community center talking, feels like a small victory.