A stunning animated movie set to hit U.S. theaters on Feb. 2 stars a new kind of “superhero” — the kind every kid (and adult) could use right now.
“Bilal: A New Breed of Hero,” directed by Ayman Jamal and Khurram H. Alavi, celebrates the totally true, incredible story of an Ethiopian slave, born in Mecca around 580 AD to a former Abyssinian princess. And if the film lives up to the promise of its lavishly animated new trailer, it’ll be a treat for the eyes — and self-confidence — to a whole generation of kids.
The film features British-Nigerian “Suicide Squad” and “Lost” actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in the leading role, bringing to life an adapted version of Bilal’s inspiring journey from young boy to fierce fighter for justice: “A 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,” according to the film’s website.
Now more than ever, young moviegoers need exposure to a range of stories, cultures, and identities on the silver screen. (Plus, as Disney’s “Moana” and Pixar’s “Coco” have proven time and again, these stories have the potential to shake up the box office.)
But the story of a young black Muslim standing against the forces of corruption, oppression, and evil is one that young kids rarely get to see.
It’s especially important for young people who are Muslim themselves, many who have never lived in a time when their religious and/or racial identity wasn’t subject to attack. And harmful stereotypes and xenophobic comments about those of Arabic descent from the Trump administration has led to a meteoric rise in bullying in America.
According to an investigation by BuzzFeed News, there have been more than 50 reported incidents of students across the U.S. using Donald Trump’s name or message to bully and harass their classmates.
The statistics are even more alarming for today’s Muslim schoolchildren. A 2017 study from the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding reported that 42% of Muslim families said their children experienced Islamophobic bullying at their schools. The study also reported that one in four of those incidents were perpetrated from teachers and school officials.
As you may have guessed from the name, “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” is literally kicking off a whole new genre of superheroes.
And that’s exactly what the film’s director Ayman Jamal intended. In an interview with Shadow and Act, Jamal said superheroes like Superman inspired him to make the film. Though he found motivation in major movie hits like “Braveheart” and “Malcolm X” during his adult years, he couldn’t find movies about real historical heroes from his culture when he was a child.
Jamal knew something needed be done when his five-year-old son said he wanted to be superman when he grew up. “I love Superman, but I wish he’d said something possible, and I wanted to create this,” he stated in the interview. “To inspire kids with a real human superhero that they can aspire to. Superman is the reason I did this. I had to save my kid.”
The real-life Bilal’s story is the stuff of a legend — he’s been deemed “the voice of Islam.” One of the earliest converts to Islam, he became one of Prophet Muhammad’s most trusted companions. According to Islamic tradition, Prophet Muhammad also chose Bilal to be the first “muezzin” — the appointed person at a mosque who makes the call to prayer, or adhan, five times a day. — of the Abrahamic faith.
To give the story the dazzling treatment he thought kids like his deserved, it took eight years and more than 5,000 hours of research, the work of actual scientists, and more than 250 animators.
All so Jamal’s son — and other young children like him — could find inspiration in a new kind of superhero.
“We hired two forensic scientists to model the characters based on these descriptions and what we know about the tribes of the time,” Jamal added. “It took six months to design each character and we’re really proud of it. We’re showing the characters exactly as described in historical texts, not just using our imagination. We’ve spent 5,000 hours of research to develop clothes and props too.”
It took a lot of resources, money, time, and hard work to produce the film, but it was worth it, because representation matters.