The case of a heartwarming backstory failing to elevate substandard filmmaking, Bilal’s Stand tells writer-director Sultan Sharrief’s true tale of growing up working at his family’s taxi stand right outside Detroit, and his efforts to enroll at the University of Michigan via an ice-carving scholarship. Sharrief, who spent years developing the project for a University of Michigan program dedicated to helping young people through cinematic production, recounts his own saga using a mixture of budding actors and actual figures from his life, as with the ice-carving coach (Charles G. Usztics) who pushed him to compete. That he overcame adversity and got his indie film made is admirable, except that the finished product is a misbegotten amateur-hour affair, characterized by all-gestures-exaggerated acting fit for an Afterschool Special (if that), and its writing so blunt as to threaten head trauma.
The struggle of Bilal (Julian Gant)—Sharrief’s proxy—is one between chasing his academic dreams and sacrificing his future so he can help support his family, who is beset by a death, incarceration and unwanted pregancy during the course of the story. Were this basic conflict not recognizable from Bilal’s incessant expository narration, Sharrief explains it outright by staging a class discussion about “social mobility vs. community abandonment.” Such heavy-handedness is typical of a work in which every single thought, emotion, and plot point is openly spoken or conveyed via cutesy squiggle-line drawings and text.
Except, that is, for Bilal’s status as a black Muslim, a fact introduced early, thus implying it’s a key component of his character and worldview, and then immediately forgotten, his faith as carelessly handled as is a finale overflowing with schmaltzy uplift. Bilal’s mom (Angela G. King) demands that he stop thinking about attending college, his pothead cousins slander him a “sellout,” and his Caucasian ice-carving teammate (Chelsea O’Connor) counsels that “if you want something better, you have to take a risk,” a nugget of wisdom almost as platitudinous as Bilal’s own musing that “everyone doesn’t always get a happy ending.” Given the existence of Bilal’s Stand, Sharrief certainly got one, though there’s ultimately nothing pleasing about an earnest, noble-intentions message movie as tone-deaf and ham-fisted as this one.