Monday, October 2, 2017

John O’Brien's "Keeping It Halal"

John O’Brien is assistant professor of sociology at New York University Abu Dhabi.

Here he dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Keeping It Halal: The Everyday Lives of Muslim American Teenage Boys:
I love this question, because I have actually thought that my book would make for a great film. At the heart of the book are five young men – ranging in age from fourteen to nineteen – who are dynamic, funny, and very close friends. The book uses over three and half years of ethnographic observation with these kids – who I call the Legendz after the name of their hip hop group – to tell the story of their growing up together as young Muslim Americans in post-9/11 urban America.

Rather than being centered on politics, though, their everyday lives – and therefore the book, and therefore the movie (!) – is focused on the trials and tribulations of urban American teenage life, intertwined with concerns of Islamic propriety. While spending their teen years together, the Legendz were also working to manage complex cultural dilemmas in their daily lives: how to listen to profane hip hop music while being a good Muslim, how to date in a way that doesn’t clash with expectations of Islamic behavior, how to meet Islamic religious obligations while still feeling and seeming to others like independent American teenagers, and how to respond to frustrating anti-Muslim harassment while not playing into the very stereotypes they hoped to escape.

I think a coming-of-age movie about these young men would be great – think an early-oughts Stand By Me meets a Muslim Smoke Signals. And the boys’ interest in hip hop would provide an excuse for a great soundtrack. In terms of casting, I think a movie like this might work best with some fresh-faced, relatively unknown actors, for whom this could be their break out roles (assuming that the movie is a big hit, of course!), but I do have a few ideas of well-known actors who could play the Legendz.

I think the part of Muhammad, one of the older boys in the group, could be played well by Michael B Jordan, of The Wire, Fruitvale Station, and Creed fame. I think Jordan has the same easy smile and sweet-faced yet intense presence that also characterized Muhammad. I texted the real Muhammad to ask him who he thought should play him, and he suggested Barkhad Abdi, the Somali-American actor-director who played the Somali pirate captain in the Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips (Muhammad’s family is originally from East Africa), noting that ““he looks like he’s from the right country and I think he needs the work hahaha.” Welcome to the bantering dynamic of my book-turned-movie’s main characters. Next Yusef, the other older member of the Legendz jumped in – did I mention this was a group Whats App text? – and offered, “I see Will Smith playing you, Muhammad.” Muhammad responded, “If we can get Will Smith, I’m down with that.”

As for Yusef, the Jordanian-born and most religiously pious and personally sincere “older brother” of the Legendz, when I asked him who he thought should play him in the movie of Keeping It Halal, he texted back without hesitation, “I think I’m going to say Joey Tribbiani from Friends (Matt LeBlanc). I think we have a lot of similar things going on.” When I asked him what he meant, his comment was in keeping with his role as consistently Islamically appropriate and slightly nerdy: “It isn’t the sleeping around part, but it’s because he’s a cornball and I like his style. I’m a big corn ball.” The other Legendz would agree.

During this text conversation, I tried to make clear to Muhammad and Yusef that this was just an abstract exercise, and that there was no plan to actually make a movie based on the book. While I think they understood that, I think they also, like me, got a little swept up in the idea of what they saw as an interesting slice of youthful Muslim American life making its way onto the silver screen. It’s a great idea - maybe I’ll make that my next project.
Learn more about Keeping It Halal at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue