“Great men are those who have the will to choose their own destiny.”
Perhaps this is a point made to certain colleagues from my undergrad, so obsessed with the minute details of cinematic artistry that they forgot how to tell a story.
Perhaps this is a response to the myriad of critics who were so quick to take a studio’s first feature film and stomp on it for not being perfectly rendered in every way.
Perhaps this is a reminder to myself that stories are made great not by those who would judge them for what they could be, but by those who tell them as they are meant to be told and by those who are so moved by them that their hearts overflow with song.
Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is not a perfect film.
Bilal does not have to be perfect.
Though the movie was made in 2015, it is only this past weekend that it has finally seen an international release. This debut film from UAE-based Barajoun Entertainment is an animated feature that tells the story of Bilal ibn Rabah, the young slave who would grow up to become not only a close companion of the Prophet Muhammad, but also Islam’s first muezzin, he who calls for prayer, he whose famous voice is echoed from the tallest spires to the smallest makeshift minarets the world over. The story presented to us takes place over the course of a lifetime, yet each vignette into which we are privileged a glimpse is intimate and individual, each spark of hope and pang of suffering made personal so we may better understand a figure who, above all else, is fueled by the hope of one day breaking his chains, those that bind his body to his masters, and those that bind his heart to the dark despair that threatens to swallow us whole.
“Bilal,” his mother asks him at the beginning of the film, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
This is not a story you have not already heard.
If you have ever read a book, watched a movie, played a videogame, you know the story of the underdog, spit upon by society for daring to exist, pushing onward in spite of the world telling him to stop trying, driven by hope for a brighter tomorrow. Why should you bother with one more underdog story?
This is what the critics would have you thinking. One review in particular couldn’t decide what audience made up appropriate viewers for this film, because the easy-for-kids delivery of the message contrasted with the filmmakers’ refusal to back down from the violent reality of Bilal’s painful existence: the beatings and the torture he endured for daring to believe, and the wars in which he fought as a freed man. Several critics accused the film’s animation of being imperfect, with stilted animations and expressions, because how dare a studio’s debut feature be anything less than Pixar quality.
Let me tell you what my initial reaction to this film was.
I sat in an empty theater with my mother and my three younger siblings, and I do mean the theater was empty: one other person sat a few rows in front of us. As the credits rolled, my family got up to leave, as did the gentleman in the front rows. I sat for about a minute and, as I stood up, allowed every emotion I felt to wash over me, like the infinitesimal particles of warm sand that danced upon the wind in some of the most stunning scenes in this picture.
I walked to the end of my row. I gripped the railing by the staircase. I cried.
I cried because this was the film that I hoped for at eight years old, when the figures from my father’s many stories didn’t have Claymation specials that were instead devoted to little drummer boys and wise men, or singing vegetables who told them how much Jesus loved them.
I cried because this was the film that I wanted at eleven years old, when I tasted blood and dirt and believed that I could be nobody’s friend because the world instead chose to see me as their enemy.
I cried because this, now, at twenty-six, is a film that I needed now more than ever because of the symbol Bilal ibn Rabah provides for those of us who desperately cling to what little bit of light burns so brightly in our hearts.
This is not, by any means, a perfect film. The writing is, at times, entirely unsubtle. The animation of a lot of the human characters can be stiff and unnatural. When the film isn’t absorbed in the spectacle of grand set pieces, it often loses its footing in terms of pacing and tone.
But this film does not have to be perfect, because so much of what it does is so good. Its set pieces, from nightmarish flashbacks and elegant dreams, to one grand battle in particular that bursts with style and flourish, are expertly choreographed and a delight to behold. The score is at once mysterious and familiar, a curated blend of styles that feels both right at home in Arabia and inviting to guests of the region. The performances are also wondrous: Bilal himself stands out as a triumph, his kind heart and righteous fury delivered in equal measure by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and his vile and vicious master, Umayyah ibn Khalaf, seethes with venom courtesy of the brilliant Ian McShane.
The story of Bilal ibn Rabah says that you are not your station in life, you are not your heritage, you are not your class, you are not who anyone says you are. You are, from beginning to end, uniquely and powerfully you. You are the only you there has ever been, and you are the only you that ever will be, and you cannot, you should not, you must not allow yourself to be shackled by the titles others will thrust upon you.
“Bilal,” his mother asks him again at the end of the film, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
This story may be thematically similar to stories you have heard before. But, for what is perhaps the first time, a Middle Eastern studio has delivered the story of one of Islam’s most celebrated heroes in a manner that is accessible to everyone. The message of Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is universal, and it is meant especially for those children who never see themselves or their culture on the silver screen in such a positive light.
You, ultimately, are the only person who is allowed to decide who you are and who you shall be. You are your own master, and you can choose your own destiny.
You, like Bilal, are not perfect.
You, like Bilal, do not have to be.