*Warning: MILD SPOILERS BELOW!*
The CGI-animated film, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, was released to US cinemas over the past weekend. Directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal, the film actually premiered at the 12th Annual Dubai International Film Festival in 2015 and tells the story of a famous figure in Islamic history, Bilal ibn Rabah. The voice cast consists of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Thomas Ian Nicholas, and Michael Gross.
Bilal was an Abyssinian slave residing in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia during the early 600s AD. Around this time, the Prophet Muhammad started preaching about the religion of Islam to the people there. Bilal was one of the earliest converts to this monotheistic religion in a land wherein polytheism reigned supreme. Even the holiest of sites in Mecca, the Holy Ka’bah, was surrounded by about 360 idols. Not only did the religion promote theological monotheism, but certain ideals such as that God looks at your heart and your actions and not at your skin color or status in society. Also that nobody is better than anybody else due to their race, skin color, gender, language, etc.
Bilal’s master, Umayyah ibn Khalaf, was furious when Bilal converted to Islam and started believing that he wasn’t worth any less than his master. Umayyah started to torture Bilal for his beliefs, yet Bilal never recanted. Bilal was soon bought from Umayyah and freed by another Muslim, Abu Bakr As-Siddeeq. From then on, Bilal joined the Muslim community and was always with them and the Prophet Muhammad throughout the rest of his life. He witnessed many important events in the early stages of Islam such as the migration of the Muslims to the city of Yathrib and was the person who had the honor to be the first to perform the Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer).
I feel it’s important to have this little history lesson first before I talk about the film itself. As previously stated, the film is generally about the life of Bilal as I’ve described, however artistic liberties are taken.
So, did I enjoy the film? Um…yes and no, mostly yes though. Let’s talk about the pros. Firstly, as a Muslim, it’s wonderful to see an Islam-oriented film hit American theaters, in particular one about the early history of Islam. The only other films that I can think of that did that are the 1976 film, The Message, starring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, and Michael Ansara and the 2004 animated film directed by Richard Rich, Muhammad: The Last Prophet.
From a technical standpoint, the animation was really remarkable! Whilst the human characters may seem a bit roughly drawn, they weren’t really near the realms of the “uncanny valley” yet. And the animation of all the action and battle scenes flowed nigh effortlessly! And have I mentioned how perfect Ian McShane was as the evil Umayyah?
Now, let’s talk about cons. The biggest problem with the movie is that since it’s trying to appeal to a general audience and not just Muslims, the film is very…”secular’, shall we say? There is no mention of the religion, Islam, or of the word, “Muslim”, anywhere at all in the film! The film focuses less on the theological monotheism that Bilal believed in and more of the racial equality that he believed in.
The character of Abu Bakr is only references as “As-Siddeeq” or as the “Lord of Merchants”. Even the Prophet Muhammad isn’t even referenced! Yes, in Islamic tradition, we don’t believe in portraying the Prophet Muhammad, but he isn’t even mentioned at all in this film! So in this particular aspect, I would say films like The Message and Muhammad: The Last Prophet did it better as they also tried to reach a general audience, but still kept the Islamic aspects of the film intact.
Umayyah’s son, Safwan, is also drawn to look very evil and sinister which some Muslims may take offense to. While he was antagonistic towards Bilal and Islam in the years that the film spans, he eventually became a Muslim and was accepted into the community. So he’s still held in high regard amongst Muslims despite what his early life was. I personally wasn’t offended by how evil he was drawn, but I did find it incredibly weird.
I also felt that Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s voice didn’t match at all with how the character of Bilal looked! Every time he spoke, I felt he was super miscast!
All in all, the film is decent enough. It’s not an amazingly made film, but at the same time, it’s one you respect for how much they tried. If you’re a Muslim, you may feel a mixture of underwhelming and amazement with the film. If you’re a non-Muslim and/or this is your first time hearing the story of Bilal, you’ll find it decent enough. Check the film out in theaters and see for yourself!