“Game’s still the same”

Written and directed by Sultan Sharrief, Bilal’s Stand tells of Sharrief’s personal experience growing up as a Muslim (not Nation of Islam black Muslim, as the movie takes pains to note) high school senior and the choices he faces.   Bilal (Julian Gant), Sharrief’s proxy, works at his uncle’s (Nadir Ahmad) taxi stand, picking up fares when he’s not in school trying to maintain his grades in order to help his struggling family.  Despite the family’s expectation that he pick up the family business, school is his main hustle.  A letter of acceptance to the University of Michigan opens up a whole new world of possibilities and he scrambles to figure out a way to pay for it.  Including taking up the art of ice carving (“Black people ain’t got no business carving no ice!”) in order to win a scholarship. Soon he is forced to decide whether he will continue working at the Stand, risking being considered a sell-out and betraying his family, or take a chance to move on up … and out.

Bilal’s Stand has an amateurish yet authentic feel to it.  It is a community coordinated film project by students of Sharrief, made piecemeal over four years.  It mixes trained actors and actual figures from his life, such as his ice-carving coach (Charles G. Usztics).  As such, it has plenty of performances that are rough around the edges, to say the least.  The movie’s moralistic tone covers familiar territory as it builds its inspirational story.  He has to fight his neighborhood, the naysayers (teachers who expect/train him to fail), as well as his own family as Bilal’s mom (Angela G. King) demands that he stop thinking about attending college.

“There’s the world that everyone sees on the outside, and the one I can see existing in me.” –Bilal

The film is held together by Bilal’s singular voice.  The narrative is fairly freewheeling though has the inventive energy of being told in a first person style.  To illustrate his worldview, the film … illustrates his worldview.  Animations are drawn over the live action to show how he sees the world versus what the audience sees, to mostly comic effect.

It’s all about perception.

While it is easy to demonize our “culture of violence” (from the atomization of nuclear families, to what passes for entertainment, and our glorification of guns), those things don’t address the individuals. Our young people often seem determined to sabotage themselves before they get started. Take, for example, the culture of disrespect. Sometimes, when all you have is your name and your rep, your pride becomes of critical (if not overwhelming) importance. Disrespect becomes an assault on one’s sense of being. Couple that mindset with a cultural affirmation of fighting to display toughness, anger or apathy at their general situation, and we have a perpetuating cycle.

“It’s not the world itself that matters but it’s the way people see the world that make it the way it is.” –Bilal

Maybe we–the people, the community–need to do to bear our share of the burden. I’m reminded of the two most important laws, echoing the law experts of Jesus’ day, are to love God and to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Yet we continue to fail to be good neighbors and keep looking for loopholes of “who is my neighbor?  We face a systemic problem and education is the only silver bullet we have, especially when combined with the dual values of moral and economic responsibility. We need to begin buying into a worldview that promotes dignity, work, marriage, family, and healthy community. We all have our roles as parents, leaders, church members, and, frankly, adults to point young people to a better way of living. We need to be giving our young people some reason to pursue a full way of living beyond the consuming and materialistic mentality they are being programmed with.

“The real world can be depressing sometimes, especially in Detroit.  So I choose to look past the surface and see things for how they really are.” –Bilal

Movies about middle class black families are rare enough, so I often rejoice in the stories when I see them.  Sometimes Bilal’s Stand can be a little too on point with its message of hope and education, nearly getting tripped up by its own earnestness (such as, while Bilal is internally debating whether his choices are selfish and a betrayal of the family/community, the movie stages a class discussion about “social mobility vs. community abandonment”).  Such heavy-handedness and noble intentions are leavened by the spirited scrip and strong voice.

Gant’s performance holds the film together and movies it along with a light bob.  The dialogue is witty and authentic.  And the movie itself has heart … a keeping it real aesthetic.