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Bilal’s Stand: A Muslim experience in the ghettos of Detroit

Bilal’s Stand is a film set in the poverty ridden suburb of Inkster, an outlying ghetto in Detroit. It follows the story of high school student Bilal and his family as they struggle to keep their taxi stand afloat. 

Isra Morley

Based on the real experience and story of its writer-director, Sultan Sharrief, this film presents an innovative view into the lives of impoverished black Americans and the social stigma they must face both at school and at home in order to achieve academically.

Bilal driving in Black American Muslim film Bilal's Stand

Bilal has been offered a place at the prestigious University of Michigan. However due to his family’s financial situation he will be unable to attend without taking out a large student loan and acquiring a scholarship to pay for the tuition fees. In order to achieve this, Bilal takes up ice sculpting in hopes of winning a competition that will grant him a scholarship, another task he has to work into his endlessly busy schedule attending school during the day, manning the stand in the afternoons and driving taxis by night.

Ice carving at the high school in the film Bilal's Stand

He is reluctant to tell his family the news of his acceptance for fear of their reactions. Other members of his family settled for going to the local community college and he is expected to do the same, and the internal conflict between familial duty and personal dreams ensues. Despite being constantly told by family members and teachers to lower his expectations and settle for attending community college, Bilal comes to understand that taking this risk may be necessary for his family’s survival.

Reading the university open day flyer

Bilal spends his time driving to and forth to a better school in the neighbouring county and the big houses on the more affluent side of town, huge buildings which tower over him and make his dreams seem unattainable. The echoing voices and critiques of his family and friends as well as his own doubts distract from his prayer, plans to apply to university and his ice carving.

Praying in the back room in the film about Black Americans in Detroit called Bilal's Stand

Bilal asks the question ‘how can you be black and Muslim at the same time’ as he attempts to navigate social expectations as well as personal morality in a world that becomes increasingly more difficult to survive in. His interests contrast with those of his age group. His cousins and friends are unmotivated and see no way out of their current situations, and therefore distract themselves with a lifestyle that Bilal feels is incompatible with his faith.    

Cousin in prison in the film Bilal's Stand

Despite these difficulties, Bilal remains steadfast in his devotion to his religion, as it is the last remaining connection he has to his departed father, one of many who converted to Islam during the 1970s and the advent of the Nation of Islam. Bilal tries to uphold these precious lessons and values that connect him to his heritage mainly in isolation, as the rest of his family either have too little time or interest in religion. Verses of the Quran are interspersed throughout the narrative and interpreted by Bilal as he uses them to navigate his complicated life and drive him to continue hoping for a better life.

Bilal's uncle offering advice in the Black American film Bilal's Stand

In spite of little support from his family and his financial issues Bilal is determined to achieve, for the sake of himself and his family, as represented by the motif of the phoenix that he plans for the ice sculpture competition. It represents not only his personal journey, but the trials of an entire community trying to free themselves from the cycle of poverty repeating itself generation by generation, a very real and relatable struggle for so many, personified by this mythical fire-bird.

Ice sculptures in Bilal's Stand

The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2010, directed, produced and written by Sultan Sharrief whose life story it tells. Using a mixture of experienced professionals, local extras and the real people from Sharrief’s narrative playing themselves, ‘Bilal’s Stand’ creates a narrative that is authentic, immersive and honest, granting audiences a view into a misunderstood world and access to voices that are all too often silenced.

Heartwarming and thought-provoking with a familiar arc, this film is a stylised and dramatised version of strains that are all too real to Black Americans and the amount of strength it takes to break out of this cycle and the social conventions that have been formed around it. This film’s authenticity in voice alone makes it well worth a watch.

Talking to his friend in Bilal's Stand

This film deals with adult themes and is not suitable for younger viewers.

Isra Morley is in her final year studying English Literature and Latin at the University of Glasgow. Raised in Cardiff by an Indian mother and a Greek and Welsh convert father, Islam and the pursuit of its understanding have always been central to her life and writing. Having written articles for various Islamic publications, and taken part in assorted creative writing courses, she is currently an intern with the Alchemiya Journal.
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