2010 Heartland Film FestivalRating: 3 of 5 yaps
“Bilal’s Stand” is the promising debut of writer/director Sultan Sharrief in a semi-autobiographical tale about a smart high school senior struggling to escape the hard streets of Detroit.
An earnest, hard-working Muslim, Bilal is torn between devotion to his family and the taxi cab business that consumes their lives, and an opportunity to go to the University of Michigan and break free from the cycle of poverty.
The drama is emotionally affecting, and Sharrief shows an original flair for storytelling. I really enjoyed how he uses illustrations resembling chalk outlines to comment on the action and characters, even as the story is unfolding before us.
For example, young men who strut and show off are known as “puffers,” and Sharrief superimposes a crude drawing of a puffer fish over them to accentuate their boastful nature.
Girls who play up the stereotype of the sassy African-American woman with attitude are “divas,” and white suburbanites who are clueless about the challenges facing black Americans are “bubbles” — as in, living inside one.
The story takes us to unexpected places. Bilal (Julian Gant) is accepted into U. of M., but too late to pursue most scholarship opportunities to help pay for it. The only one that’s left is in the culinary arts in the field of … ice sculpture.
How many poor black students who excel at carving angelfish or automobiles out of blocks of ice are out there? Bilal is determined to be the first in his family, and his school, and probably the greater Detroit metropolitan area.
He finds a gruff mentor in Charles Usztics (playing himself), the school culinary arts teacher who’s seen too many students walk out his door for a job, a girlfriend or a familial obligation. He’s determined to win the local ice-carving competition, and Bilal is his last, best chance to do so.
Bilal finds a great deal of resistance from the place he least expected it: His own family. With his father long dead and his mother and uncle up to their necks in running the Black and White Taxi Stand, Bilal is accused of being a “sellout” for his ambitions to attend a prestigious university. It’s a harsh commentary on the push and pull youngsters of color feel from within their own communities.
The cast is made up mostly of amateurs, and it shows. Gant is a solid presence in the lead role, and Sabrina Quinn shows a few subtle notes as his cousin Keisha. The other actors, though, contribute to a lot of moments that feel inauthentic and sometimes even hammy.
Sharrief is going to have to learn how to handle actors better, but I think his visual originality and ability to depict complex family dynamics bespeak a filmmaker just finding his footing.