Cinema has a role to play in centering and celebrating the black Muslim experience. The BLM movement and it’s call for more accurate representation of the black American community and support for black filmmakers is encouraging. Despite this there are not enough films that explore the black American Muslim narrative, Zarah and the Oilman is a rare gem.
by Valerie Grove
It takes a while to adjust to the fact that you are basically hanging out for 20 minutes at a street stall in Newark, New Jersey, selling perfumed oils with a father and his very bored daughter who is distinctly unimpressed by her Dad’s sales pitch.
Their relationship slowly unfolds as they interact with each other and with the numerous customers who weave quickly in and out providing a quirky flow of social and character observation. When Zahra finally gets her chance to do the selling, a whole other picture begins to emerge along with a deep and powerful new understanding between her and her father.
The film is very atmospheric, gently creating a sense of day-to-day community and the flow of street life in a largely African American, urban environment. It is also a beautifully and uniquely composed film that is sweet, sad, direct and funny with compassionate insights into the life experience of its characters.
However, the heart of the film is Zahra and her father negotiating their own relationship and learning about each other in the process. This makes it primarily a story about love and it makes you feel distinctly happier for having watched it.
Interviewed at the premiere of the film at the American Black Film Festival in 2019, writer, director and producer, Yucef Mayes, said there were two things in particular that pushed him to make the film. The first was his need to start showing a different narrative about African American Muslims and African Americans in general, and the second was just being a Dad.
He said that experience of fatherhood had made him think a lot about how intimate family relationships worked and especially the realisation that the values you teach your children end up coming straight back at you when they’re older. You then learn from them so it works both ways. What he wanted to show in the film was how the balance of power and the relationships are always shifting and growing: “The power of filmmaking is that it enables us to show life as it is and to remind us that we are always learning.”
NB: This film is no longer available to watch on Alchemiya but we hope this review will inspire you to seek it out elsewhere!
About the Filmmaker
Yucef Mayes is a graduate of the New School University of NYC, and a former writing fellow of the Center of Black Literature from Medgar Evers College of Brooklyn, NY. Together with his cousin and partner Aaron Melvin, he founded Shine Black Art & Film, a company which aims to broaden the narrative for underrepresented populations and people of color. Zahra and the Oil Man (2019) is his second short film. It received critical acclaim from the Smithsonian Institute and was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay in the Black and Latino Film Awards in NYC. Other accolades and screenings include best short film at the Newark International Film Festival; Official Selection-Emerging Director’s Showcase, American Black Film Festival; Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival; Color of Conversation Film Series in Denver and the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia. In 2020 it was nominated for Outstanding Short in the Black Reel Awards.
Zahra and the Oil Man is part of Brick People, a series that explores complex narratives of the African Diaspora in urban America.