A thousand years ago, one boy with a dream of becoming a great warrior is abducted with his sister and taken to a land far away from home. Thrown into a world where greed and injustice rule all, Bilal finds the courage to raise his voice and make a change.
This animated story begins with a young boy playing in the desert and pretending to be a great warrior. He teases his sister. He loves his mother. But then ugly men attack, his mother is killed, and the boy and his sister are taken into slavery. Bilal (Jacob Latimore/Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) grows up as a slave alongside his sister, Ghufaira (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams/China Ann McClain). He has been a slave for so long that his little boy dreams of becoming a noble warrior have all but dried up in the desert sands. But Bilal’s dreams are encouraged by his sister, and then, by a very unexpected person: a free man.
This is the story of a slave finding his voice for freedom and facing the cost of what it means to be truly free in your heart and in your mind and in your soul.
Unfortunately, with regards to film quality alone, “Bilal” has a great deal lacking. The graphics are decent and the opening scenes of children collaborate with the animation to entice the viewer. But the plot plays too much with the abstract and the dialogue is too philosophical to keep the story focused and enjoyable. For the majority of the 104 minutes, the story moves too slowly and without solid transitions. It took me more than half of the film to really understand the point of the story…and even then, it only became really clear when I googled “Bilal.”
As a matter of experiment, I often review movies with absolutely no information beforehand. I don’t watch the trailer and I don’t research any background details. Usually, all I know is the title and possibly the leading actors. In this case, I had no idea at all what kind of story I was going to watch, other than the fact that it was an animated film. Granted, I did make the assumption that it was a kid-oriented film, purely based on the fact that it was animated. And all of this led me to a truly eye-opening experience, and I believe, a genuine review of a what turned out to be a religious film inspired by a historical figure.
According to Wikipedia, “Bilal ibn Rabah (Arabic: بلال ابن رباح (580–640 AD), was one of the most trusted and loyal Sahabah (companions) of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He was born in Mecca and is considered as the first muezzin, chosen by Muhammad himself. He was known for his beautiful voice with which he called people to their prayers. He died in 640, at the age of 57.”
In short, this film is not about “a new breed of hero,” but rather an old, old, old story of slavery, greed, sin, ONE god versus idolatry, and the courage of one man to be willing to give even his life for this one god.
But, in the case of Bilal, it is awkward to understand how a self-doubting slave with dreams of being a warrior somehow transitions to become one of the first converts of Islam. How does Islam justify and satisfy his dreams of being a free warrior? And isn’t a warrior an odd way to establish the peace of this ONE god? Although to be fair, it is not so unusual for the deities of that era and geographic region. The god of Abraham established himself through quite a bit of war as well, along with the familiar elements of slavery and noble self-sacrifice.
What was the most interesting about watching this film was gaining a little perspective on what it must be like to watch a religious story about which I have little to no background knowledge. I am very, very familiar with the religious stories of Christianity – so much so, that my knowledge easily fills in the gaps in a movie such as “Prince of Egypt” or “Joseph: King of Dreams.” Maybe I even do this without realizing how disjointed or nonsensical the plot may really be to someone without the same familiarity. Because that is exactly how watching “Bilal” was for me. It didn’t make sense and even when I figured it out (with the help of the internet), I felt slightly tricked into being proselytized, even though the film isn’t overtly about Islam. Bilal is a historical figure, just as Jesus is, but the effectiveness of the storytelling largely depends on your own cultural loyalty to the ideas behind the story.
This film has received many positive reviews and awards, but I can tell you that it was no surprise to me to learn that it bombed in the box office when it was released in the MENA (Middle East to North African) region. Here is a story that is undoubtedly dear to the hearts of many in this region and yet it still failed to really win over the theater crowds. Why? Because, although Bilal may be a historical hero of Islam, the powerful story elements have changed over the centuries. We relate less and less to a lifetime of physical slavery and freedom through abstract mysticism. The story has changed. Maybe history is still the same, but the further we get from any moment in history, the harder it is for us to connect with it. And it is even harder to tell the truly ancient stories in 104 animated minutes without making some very unstable assumptions about the knowledge and interest of today’s audiences.
In theaters Friday, February 2nd