Buddy-Cop Film American Sharia Tackles Islamophobia with Humor
By Gabriel San Roman
Seeing American Sharia on a movie theater marquee is going to inspire more than a few double takes.
It may sound like a new Islamophobic documentary whipping up haters with hysteria over creeping Islamic law in these United States, but is far from it.
Directed by African-American Muslim comedian Omar Regan, American Sharia is actually a buddy-cop film big on the belief that wisecracks and wisdom can calm misguided fears about Islam and one of its most misunderstood tenets. And its US premiere—happening in Orange County at the Cinemark Century Stadium 25 in Orange on Jan. 20—is perfectly timed to laugh away Donald Trump-inauguration blues.
The first film produced by Regan's Halalywood Entertainment group, American Sharia is fast to the funny, opening with a tumultuous town hall in Detroit at which black Police Chief Adam Carswell (Joshua Salaam) tries to reassure angry residents—and save his chances for re-election. A white woman decries Muslims as "terrorists" and gangsters who need to pick up their sagging pants. A black man, played by comedian Preacher Moss, jumps on the latter point joking, "Those kids running around with their pants sagging, it's always a moon sighting. Last year, a couple of Muslims got Ramadan started!" (The holy month of fasting begins with the sighting of a full moon—get it?)
Punch lines such as that make American Sharia groundbreaking on the silver screen. For too long, Hollywood has reduced Muslims to tired terrorist tropes in movies such as The Siege and True Lies. Civil-rights groups including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) have protested poor portrayals, but Regan's being proactive in film. "We can tell our own stories," he says.
Yet as hilarious as the film's opener is, it quickly turns somber. Officer Richardson (Eric Roberts), the film's chief Islamophobe, tells a Palestinian-American store clerk wearing a hijab, "Get that towel thing off your damn head." After gathering herself from tears, the clerk teams with high-powered Muslim civil-rights attorney Leila Rodriguez (YaseminKanar, a.k.a. Yaz the Spaz), who guns for Richardson's badge and that of any other religious profiler on Motor City's force.
All the acrimony creates headaches for Carswell, who needs the city's Muslim votes to get re-elected. Sergeant Jackson (Quadir Lateef), Carswell's right-hand man, devises a plan to use the department's own Muslims to dispel tensions in the community. Carswell brings hapless Officer Mo, short for Mohammed (Omar Regan), and Detective Abdul (Baba Ali) together to "speak Muslim to the Muslims."
"There is no jihad in America," Adbul says, laughing. He explains to the chief that the word simply means "struggle."
Jackson catches on quick. "I had a jihad with two burritos," he cracks.
Regan—who was the body double for Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2—wanted American Sharia to be a buddy-cop comedy. ("I love Lethal Weapon and Bad Boy," he says.) And while American Sharia's main cops are both Muslim, they are different in many ways. Mo is uncomfortable with his faith at work, sneaking prayers behind closed doors, only to be caught in the act by fellow officers. Abdul prays openly and proudly, winning the affection of his colleagues.
"I wouldn't tell people I was Muslim if you didn't ask me," Regan says of his times in Hollywood. "I would hide, praying behind the door. I just didn't want to have that conversation with people."
But American Sharia tackles its title head on. Adbul acts as the main vehicle for lessons in sharia throughout the film. When the two cops stop a shoplifter, the detective breaks out a large knife. Mo is frightened he's going to chop the thief's hand off, but Abdul simply slices a piece of bread to give to the man, who stole out of hunger. In another scene, the two come under fire from a suspect in a foot chase.
Adbul is all too understanding, lecturing Mo not to shoot to kill and reminding him of the Qur’anic teaching that to save a life is akin to saving all of mankind. "You teach me that many people have no idea what sharia even is," he later tells Mo in the patrol car.
Though American Sharia can veer too preachy at times, it triumphs in offering a humorous lesson in Islam. Orange County, being home to the second-largest Middle Eastern community in the nation, hosts the film's CAIR-sponsored premiere on the same day President-elect Trump, who rode a wave of anti-Muslim hate to the White House, will be inaugurated into office. "Honestly, it's truly a blessing," Regan says with a laugh. "It would be really great to have people that disagree to come through and see people laughing.
"When we laugh together," Regan continues, "we see our reflection in each other."
American Sharia was written and directed by Omar Regan; and stars Omar Regan, Baba Ali, Yaz the Spaz, Joshua Salaam and Eric Roberts. Screens Jan. 20 at Cinemark Century Stadium 25, 1701 W. Katella Ave., Orange, (714) 532-9558. For show times, tickets and other information, visit HalalywoodOC.EventBrite.com. OCWEEKLY