"It's not a jazzy film," said Gender JUST's Yasmin Nair, in introducing the 2015 film Naz and Maalik as part of an event entitled "Black, Queer and Criminalized," held June 5 at the Chicago Freedom School. "It's a film that really forces you to watch."
With a close, realistic focus that spans for a day, or perhaps an evening, the film portrays a relationship between two Muslim, Black teenage boys in gentrifying Brooklyn. Naz and Maalik are best friends who do everything together, including visiting a mosque, question tenets of their faith, and hawk lotto tickets and cheap perfume on the sidewalk. They are also clandestine lovers. Throughout their travels, the boys are surveilled by a variety of entities, including their family and the FBI.
As Nair described it, Gender JUST, who co-hosted the event and is a queer radical organization concerned with how to articulate queer radical politics and challenge the gay mainstream, wants to give its members and activists space to "sit and think."
"Intellectual work drives movements," explained Nair.
"We've always been kind of critical of everything," joked Gender JUST member Kendall Granberry, who said the group helped him develop an ethic around media and consumption.
Gender JUST partnered with Sequoya Community, whose founder, Black queer therapist Sequoya Hayes, wanted to bring people together to have conversations about larger issues impacting the queer community.
"My main focus is bridging the gap between mental health and social justice," said Hayes, who has also facilitated recent conversations about Black mothers, and gentrification's relationship to criminalization. Relating to the film, Hayes talked about how her identity constantly makes people project ideas onto her, making assumptions about her status.
An audience member who grew up in Bangladesh compared the Muslim boys' experience with his own expectations of America; that it would be unwelcoming to Muslims but relatively queer-friendly. He appreciated the humanity of the characters, saying that the film didn't feel performative. Another audience member, who had visited Brooklyn and was struck by even its homeless inhabitants' hustle, felt that the film achieved that sense of economic struggle and urgency.
A third participant said she didn't understand the stresses police cause until she moved to Chicago. Her roommate, another person of color, has threatened to call the police on her and her queer organizer friends. "They're living despite all this," she said about the film's characters, adding that as a queer person of color, "you're always coming out."
At one point, the quiet, devout Naz chases an FBI agent down the street, basically coming out to her to avoid trouble, which an audience member likened to him "offering" his gayness, having to prove it to the state. Yet in the same moment, Naz begs the agent not to reveal his secret to his very religious and conservative parents.
"I wonder sometimes about the ability to live openly and come out as its own kind of privilege," said Granberry. He also critiqued his impulse to try to fit the characters into their own narrative, and pointed out that there were "no good characters" in the film.
"I identify with the characters so much," said Granberry. "Maalik feels like people I know."
Maalik is the more outgoing of the film's two title characters, and Granberry ascribed some of his "coarseness" and difficulty with intimacy to societal expectations of him as a young Black man and the way he's forced to inhabit his queerness. Granberry described Maalik's actions towards Naz as "threatening, possibly abusive, but real."
Others saw Maalik as perhaps protective, or struggling against toxic masculinity and racist perceptions: "Toxic masculinity meets immaturity meets why we criminalize Black bodies," as one participant put it.
Reflecting on a moment where Maalik threatens to punch Naz in the face, Hayes talked about the difficulty queer people often face in creating successful intimate relationships.
"We don't have examples of what healthy relationships look like," she said.
Final thoughtsalthough when the space closed, about half the small audience decamped to a nearby Panera for continued conversationincluded musings about what the film would be like if it were not focused on two Black characters.
"In every gay movie I've seen, they're white," an audience member said, appreciatively comparing Naz and Maalik to other films in the genre. "[These characters], they're not going into a bar. They're not hypersexualized."