Friday round table: Muslim Americans react to 'The Big Sick'

Friday round table guests with Kerri Miller
Round table guests (clockwise, from center) Ali Elabbady, Nimo Hussein Farah, Qais Munhazim, and MPR News host Kerri Miller
Ali Elabbady

We asked our round table guests this week to watch "The Big Sick," a film that was nominated for an Oscar this year for best original screenplay. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, a real-life married couple, wrote the film about their love story - which survived a mysterious illness that landed Gordon in the hospital for several months. It's a somewhat traditional romantic comedy: Guy meets girl. Something tears them apart. Guy fights to get girl back. Happily ever after. But what set this film apart, in the eyes of critics, was the way it portrayed an average Muslim American family doing normal American things.

"The Big Sick" joins a wave of cultural works featuring Muslim American protagonists - take Aziz Ansari's character in "Master of None," or Kamala Khan, the title character in the comic book "Ms. Marvel" - which all contribute to what former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dubbed "Hollywood's Muslim American renaissance."

"Muslims have had a great run being portrayed as rabid, merciless terrorists," Abdul-Jabbar writes. "That's what Americans saw in movies and television shows from True Lies to 24 to Homeland. That is the image of Muslims many Americans still cling to. Even with the many recent positive portrayals of Muslim-Americans in the arts, it takes time for images to dilute the poison that's been mixed in for so long."

We invited three local Muslim artists, activists, and scholars to talk about the significance of films like "The Big Sick." It turns out none of them were impressed.

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"It's no different from 'My Big, Fat Greek Wedding,'" said Nimo Hussein Farah, a writer and activist, "I didn't see that movie causing any kind of 'dialogue' around an identity."

Ali Elabbady had a problem with the characterization of Nanjiani's Pakistani family. "Every time he got together with his family, the accents were laid on super, super thick," said Elabbady, who's a writer, producer and DJ.

"I felt really sick watching it," said Qais Munhazim, director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Minnesota. Munhazim took issue with a scene in the movie where Nanjiani's character burns a pile of photographs of eligible Pakistani women his mother has tried to set up with and presents the ashes to Emily. "That is such a painful scene to watch knowing that there's a lot of domestic violence that goes around the world... and [women] have been burned, they have burned themselves to free themselves from a lot of domestic violence."

Even though the round tablers thought the film was not a great representation of what it means to be Muslim in America, the conversation evolved into a discussion about the complexities of being a first- and second-generation American, the trauma of leaving a war-torn country, and the importance of family in the lives of immigrant children.

Use the audio player above to hear the full discussion.