Growing up in a Puerto Rican-American family in a tough section of the Bronx, Jason “Hamza” Perez dreamed he would end up in jail and die young. Now he thinks he was right—sort of. When he meets some local Muslim sheikhs at 21, he converts to Islam and his gangbanger self “dies.” A few years later, he finds himself volunteering at a faith-based initiative program in a local prison. A sensitive and perceptive film, New Muslim Cool chronicles Hamza’s halting evolution from thug to Muslim leader and family man.
We meet Hamza in medias res: A single dad raising two kids, he’s about to get married to a woman he met on a Muslim dating website and move to a community of mostly Latino Muslim converts in Pittsburgh. Director Jennifer Maytorena Taylor deftly constructs a portrait of Hamza learning to build cultural bridges: He cooks “boricua halal” food (traditional Puerto Rican fare made according Muslim dietary code), ministers to teenagers with his hip hop group, the Mujahideen Team, and explains to his skeptical but curious mom why her granddaughter has started wearing a hijab to school.
But the film’s real strength is mixing the political with the domestic: Just as Hamza has learned to move among his own worlds, the outside world gets in the way. And that’s where things really start to get interesting: The police raid the new Pittsburgh mosque—the stated reason is a convicted child molester who worships there, but the community suspects the FBI had been watching them for a while. And later, the prison where Hamza volunteers suddenly revokes his security clearance without explanation (he eventually gets it back). New Muslim Cool shows how Bush-era Islamophobia affected one family’s daily life, but the most remarkable part is watching Hamza and his family take the turmoil in stride. “You know you’re not doing anything wrong,” says Hamza’s wife Rafia. “So you just live your life.”
New Muslim Cool debuts on PBS Tuesday, June 23 at 10 PM, and opens in select theaters nationwide this month.