Why I Walked Out Of The Film, Bilal

This post for the blog carnival is from a mother who celebrated the Power of One by leaving the movie in protest

By Umm Muhammad

As a mother of a preteen, who gets easily hooked on cartoon characters and conventional superheroes, I not only wanted, I needed the movie, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, to work. I desperately wanted the hero in the film to replace his constant chattering about Superman, Dragon Ball Z, and Ninjago. I was looking forward to the lively discussions that this highly anticipated, animated masterpiece would spark. It would be magical. My son, who has been fixated on Captain Underpants and Lego characters in recent weeks, would finally have something more positive to obsess about.

Before you digress to judging my parenting, rather than understand my review, I want to offer some points for clarity:

No, we don’t allow TV at home. Whatever my children watch is limited and monitored.

No, my son does not play videogames.

No, my son does not own a smartphone, or any phone for that matter. Neither does he have a tablet nor any type of computer. His computer use is for school assignments only, with parental controls in place.

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No, he does not spend days and nights at strangers’ houses or unsupervised where he has access to these things. Mostly, he has learned about mainstream cartoon characters at Islamic school.

We consider ourselves a moderately religious Muslim family; we believe in the Oneness of Almighty God, we pray, we fast Ramadan and some extra, we give in charity, and insha’Allah we will go for Hajj when we can afford it. When I say moderate, I mean we try our best, but we don’t consider ourselves perfect and acknowledge that there is always room for improvement.

Now, with all this in mind, let’s get back to the movie, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero. It filled me with excitement to think about watching it with my family. As soon as I saw the trailer, some time ago, it sparked my interest. I was only slightly skeptical about what I felt may have been the deliberate whitewashing of Bilal ibn Rabah, with his character’s soft, flowing cornrows of hair, light complexion, and honey brown eyes, he didn’t seem to be what I had envisioned Bilal to be; but admittedly, I don’t know how dark or light-skinned he really was. I only assumed because of previous portrayals of Bilal in films I had seen and ahadith that I had read.

I knew that there would be fictional elements in the film. This movie was made for a larger audience and with a more generally acceptable theme of racial equality, a lesson we all need now during these controversial times. However, I did not expect it to be completely disconnected from Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as it would be impossible to highlight the historical value and status of Bilal ibn Rabah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) without speaking about the very person who helped raise him to that rank.

Before purchasing our tickets, we read other reviews which provided some insight and fair warnings about the absence of the Prophet in the movie, and the benefit of teaching our children about the real history prior to viewing the film. I also knew that the film was rated PG-13, and I honestly thought that it was just due to the battle scenes, which were nothing new to us, after having already learned about and seen countless portrayals of famous battles between the Muslims and their opponents. Regardless of all of this, we were still amped to watch the movie because, whether Bilal stayed true to historical facts or not, it was still about Bilal, an unconventional Muslim hero of color.

After hurrying to buy our popcorn, pretzels, candy and drinks, we rushed to grab our seats, expecting a full house, but luckily, there were only a handful of people in the theater room for the 2pm showing. The kids knew that they may see things in the movie that differed from what they saw in the cartoon, Muhammad: The Last Prophet (Badr International, 2002), the movie, The Message (Akkad, 1976), and others. They were just happy to be at the movie theater and ready to see the famous Bilal from a whole new perspective. After enduring some grueling previews of mostly British family films, with some odd comedy which seemed inappropriate for children, it finally began.

My excitement turned into anxiety with the first scene. Huge, dark, red-eyed horses glared through a black night galloping wildly and viciously towards some unknown target. Their riders, ominous figures, clad in heavy armor seemed to have ill-intentions. It was an opening that I had not expected. I became uneasy and glanced at my children. They seemed fine so far. Then suddenly we got a glimpse at a young Bilal, pretending to be a brave warrior on a wooden horse. He and his sister play happily and their mother steps in when they get into a squabble. “Masha’Allah, just like my kids,” I thought, and I shot another glance at them, smiling. But then the shadowy horses took over the screen again, and the bright day became gloomy. Bilal’s mother instinctively runs and hides her children and then, we are given the impression, through sounds of her shrieking and the children’s looks of horror, that she is violently killed. Bilal struggles and breaks free from his hiding place, only to be snatched by the irate soldiers.

After this disturbing scene, we find ourselves in Makkah, getting a glimpse of the Arabian city in pre-Islamic times. We come to understand that this is a new home to a slightly older Bilal and his sister, where they are now living as slaves. The depiction of Makkah is darker than in other films, with demonic looking characters, and one of the things I found most thought-provoking was that some of the characters use wooden tribal masks, which resemble those used in African religious ceremonies. These masks are often used to represent spirits and demons, and to my knowledge, they were not part of Arabian culture. One character, apparently some type of soothsayer, is shown using one of these costumes with an evil-looking wooden mask and matching sharp nails, surrounded by the people in the marketplace urging them to give their money to the idols. His mysterious nature and eerie voice made me feel uneasy, and both my husband and I were convinced it was a representation of none other than Satan, himself. That was a turn-off.

Nevertheless, we endured, watching as they zoomed in on the Kaabah and its surroundings. Not surprisingly, it was encircled by the familiar idols we have all learned were revered during that time, but one stood out. It was a peculiar sight, for it stood not around or near the Kaabah, but on top of it. It was the most offensive thing that I saw during this whole experience. A statue of a bearded man, of muscular build, with the horns of a ram twisted around the sides of his head, sitting menacingly on top of the Kaabah, overlooking the city. The statue is very similar to what is known as Baphomet, a deity that the Knights Templars, better known as the Crusaders, were accused of worshipping in the 14th Century. It was, to us, a blatant and very deliberate Satanic symbol on what is the holiest place on Earth, the House of Allah. It is an utterly disrespectful image that I would not expect to see from an enemy of Islam, much less in a film produced by Muslims. As distasteful as it was, I continued to watch, hoping for something better to come, so as to outweigh the bad.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came when we were introduced to the character of a young Safwan ibn Umayyah, the son of one of the staunchest opponents of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and cruel slave master to Bilal ibn Rabah. Although he is a youngster, his appearance is sinister, and his personality is sadistic. His skin is pale and grayish and his eyes, black and full of malice. I found this to be offensive to the legacy of Safwan raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), who becomes a Muslim after the conquest of Mecca, and later lives on to wholeheartedly support Islam. Depicting him in his earlier years as a repulsive sociopath as this film does is detrimental to his reputation and character as a defender of the faith and an insult to any Muslim who respects the companions and their contributions to Islam. This is why scholars have warned against depictions of the companions, but unfortunately, we stubbornly continue seeking this type of halal “edutainment.”

When the young, gothic-looking Safwan and some of his friends, one of which is also wearing one of the mysterious wooden tribal masks, begin attacking Bilal’s sister for no apparent reason, Bilal steps in to help. A fight ensues and news of this reaches Umayyah, the father, who decides to punish both his son and Bilal. His words are severe and abusive to both children, which I also found very distressing and unsuitable. However, it was the physical punishment that finally led me to lean over to my husband and ask him if we could leave. The character of Umayyah throws Bilal to the ground in a manner so vicious and unexpected, that I had to look away.

I had hoped that the violence in the beginning minutes of the film would be the worst of it until they showed the torture of Bilal, something we were more familiar with, but unfortunately, it was only the beginning of the disturbing imagery that we would be subjected to. I find that 3D computer animated characters are so humanlike that our response to them is different than if they were a more traditional cartoon. It was almost as if I was seeing a real adult male brutally beating a young child, without being able to react. I feel like someone who has suffered through physical or verbal abuse or any childhood trauma may be sensitive to some of the content in this film.

When I whispered to my husband, “Should we go?” He immediately said, “Yes,” as if he had been hoping I would ask for some time. I looked over at the kids, and they looked pained and confused. This is what I had feared; they saw too much already. It was time to go. I quickly grabbed our belongings and told them to step outside. They followed us out of the theater, and when they asked us why we were leaving, we explained that the movie was too violent and it was not a good depiction of the companions. They didn’t complain.

I immediately wanted to warn others on Islamic forums not to make the same mistake I had, but I was met with resistance from families that have sat through the whole film and enjoyed it. As with all things in life, people have their own opinions and reasoning. However, all I can say is walking out of the movie was my own personal, quiet protest. I felt a sense of pride when my family and I stood together, mid-film, and walked away while others sat bewildered. Despite spending our money on tickets and popcorn, despite taking time out of our Saturday and driving all the way to the theater, and despite what anyone says about how great it may be to them, we could not sit through a movie that, just within its first 15-20 minutes, insulted the legacy of the companions and our beloved holy site, thus disrespecting Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, and Islam, itself.

And as the legacy of Bilal ibn Rabah’s life teaches us to never back down and to be proud of who we are, thus we celebrate our hero and stand to protect his honor.

21 / View Comments

21 responses to “Why I Walked Out Of The Film, Bilal”

  1. Muhammad says:

    While I did not like the Bilal movie entirety either (I do overall think it’s a better movie for our kids to be watching then most movies out there now a days), I honestly can’t believe your gripe is with the violence of pre-Islamic Arabia. If anything, that was the most accurate part of the movie. We cannot sugar coat our history and claim that the same people who shoved a spear through the private area of Summayah (R), threw camel insides on the Prophet (SAW), and boycotted their own cousins to the point of starvation would not shove a child slave to the ground and beat him up. That is how it was for the companions of the Prophet (SAW), especially for the ones in the lower class standings. The times we’re times of war, with brother torturing and killing brother (Musab (R) was chained down in his own house by his own mother!). I think it only adds to our respect and admiration of the companions to see what they went through and how far they went for the sake of Allah (SWT), and that’s what we should be teaching our kids.

    And Allah (SWT) knows best

  2. Hina says:

    What bothered me the most was the essence of Tawheed was almost completely missing from the movie. If I recall correctly there were o Lya one or two scenes that talk about the oneness of Allah SWT. It’s obvious that this film was made to a secular audience.
    Sister, had you stayed and seen the entire movie you would have seen how they show the softness , mercy and change in Safwan bin Ummayah’s personality – it was one of the most touching and emotional scenes

  3. Ilikedthemovie says:

    Really? The movie was not intended for young children, hence the rating.

    The kaba was adorned with/surrounded by idols in pre-Islamic Arabia. Why would a depiction of something historical offend the author? Once Mecca was under Muslim rule, the kaba was shown as cleared of all such idols. As for, horns of rams vs. whatever idol the author would rather fancy–really? Let’s give some creative license. The shape and look of the idols aren’t central to the movie.

    She and her husband are not “moderate,” they sound rigid. I wish they’d loosen up for their kids’ sake.

    Only valid point: what’s up with the light brown skin of Bilal?

  4. مسعود یونس says:

    Why I Stayed and Actually Enjoyed the Movie with My Family

    I do not recall when was the last time my kids had watch an animated movie with this interest. All the stories we have been telling them, the narrative of Islamic history that they heard and watched in the Omer Series, played out in front of them yet again.

    My 10 year and 7 year old actually would like to share this movie with their friends as they found it inspiring. Yes, INSPIRING.

    The movie has a story that is very close to actual events, though sometimes dramatized extensively, still not come across as way too off from any actual narrative. For kids growing up in the west, this is one of the best video in their video library.

    The movie will connect will audience of all kinds. After all it is an animated movie and targeted towards broader population so the religious narrative is in the backdrop but still leaves a powerful impact as the story telling is all about the “impact” of the deen on Bilal and other muslims. It had that impact on my family.

    I chose to stay in the movie and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I recommend others also take their families out and enjoy this masterpiece and show SUPPORT. We need more of these narratives and cannot afford to stereotype these efforts with dramatic article headlines like. Our kids need better stories to see and hear that Captain Underpants.

    BILAL: A NEW BREED OF HERO is the fresh air that our kids need today. Don;t demonize it. Appreciate it and provide constructive feedback so more of our brothers and sisters can take similar initiatives and help educate and inspire the next generation of ummah through creative story telling of stories that are still told in a very traditional manner.

  5. Gina Thunder says:

    Wait, Sister. I don’t understand. Why would you say “until they showed the torture of Bilal, something we were more familiar with”? You knew he was tortured, but it was so humanlike you connected with the pain of Bilal and that was too much for you and your children were distressed. That’s the point isn’t it? Aren’t we to connect with one another, to have empathy? Through that connection we make the case for justice, peace, solidarity and inalienable freedoms. That was a teachable moment.

    Why would you want the movie to leave out the idols, the beatings and Safwan’s hard heart? You mentioned white-washing of Bilal’s skin color, but what seems to offend you more is the creators didn’t “Walt Disney-ify” it. I’m Christian and even I know that lieing about historical truths is not haram. Safwan was evil, but look what God did for him to soften his heart and turned his face to worship Allah. That’s a teachable moment. Look at how the people and city were uplifted after they bent their knees not to idols but to God. Teachable moments.

    I’m looking forward to taking my family to see this movie. We’ve been connecting with another family who is Muslim to find additional resources to learn about Bilal. Every movie where people of color are the heroes and victors like Bilal and Marvel’s Black Panther we are grabbing on to them with dear life. There is no where else our children can go to see such diversity, courage and strength. I’m about sick of Doc McStuffins, Avatar the Last Airbender cartoon and Bino & Fino (the only cartoons my children are allowed to watch).

    Peace be unto you my dear Sister. Please forgive me if I said anything that was offensive to you or any other reader.

    • Rehana says:

      Sister if you wanted to shield your children from the brutality sahabas (companions) had to endure to lay the foundation of Islam then you should have taken them to a Walt dine movie. Don’t even bother reading to them the sirah because guess what, its the same brutality, hardship and suffering. The Kabah had 300 idols in it in the time of the prophet, and he (S.A.W) and his companions cleansed it from them on the day of fath makkah (when they conquered Makkah). As to the reason why Bilal was depicted lighter is because the muslim world is so racist that they would not be able to empathize with the character if he was any darker. sad but true. If he was depicted as a “black” person they would have said something along the lines of “oh its ok, those people are used to such a hard life”. so they made him lighter and luckily the effect has stuck. Next time check the PG rating and the advice at the start of the film and FOLLOW it instead of craping all over hard work of brilliant people to get people to read your post. If we put as much effort in supporting each other as we do in putting each other down to make ourselves look good as you and those with you then maybe our children could look up to us, the parents, for inspiration not a quick fix movie. May ALLAH guide us and you.

  6. Shafkat says:

    The movie was great.

  7. Siraj says:

    Sister, couldn’t you have watched the movie first before taking your kids?

  8. Sarah says:

    I don’t get why people are so upset about this movie. So what if he was white washed? So what if there was no message of Tawhid. This movie wasn’t made just for Muslims. The fact that a movie about Bilal came out and is playing in theaters all across America is a big deal. It takes baby steps to get the message of Islam across in the media. A message that isn’t just about terrorism. We should support the people who made this movie and show our kids that yes, they belong and can have relatable characters in the media. I wish I had movies like this and hijab wearing advertisements and barbie dolls when I was growing up. Our kids are lucky that even with all the hate, there is still the celebration of diversity that we lacked growing up in America.

  9. Yusuf Smith says:

    As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    I always thought it was haraam to depict or play-act the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) or the Sahaba. It’s not part of any Muslim tradition (it’s a strong tradition in Christianity) and none of us is worthy to be seen as one of them. Worse, this uses computerised images, and drawing images of humans or animals is haraam, yet Muslims think they are serving the Ummah by doing these things.

    I’ve seen The Message on video many years ago, and that film also cast as the villain Abu Sufyaan (radhi Allahu ‘anhu) who also later became Muslim and was a Sahabi. And although it did not depict the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) or the ‘inner’ Sahaba, it made the mistake of assuming that the people depicted, including Bilal (radhi Allahu ‘anhu), were also-rans which they certainly were not.

  10. Nadia says:

    Assalaamu’alaikum warahmatullah wabarakatuh.

    First of all I would like to congratulate you for setting up those rules for your children. Indeed, we live in a dangerous era that such restrictions are necessary to ensure the safety of our children, particularly their deen. Seriously I would rather have my kids lead a “miserable” life in this temporary world we live in, but they are steadfast upon the deen and uphold the Tawheed. I’m glad you and your family walked out from the film. The best source for us muslims to learn about our beloved Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam and his companions radhiyallaahu ‘anhum is by studying the authentic hadeeths and seerah. The film only focuses on the slavery. Nothing about Islam in it, let alone Tawheed as the foundation of Islam. The film was made by a secular for secular audience. Allaahu yubaarik feeki.

    Wassalaamu’alaikum warahmatullah wabarakatuh.

  11. Rizwan says:

    I wouldn’t lean on feature movies to learn about Islam, let alone try to teach kids about Islam as their young minds are very impressionable. From the trailer, it’s clear that it’s a movie for older teens and adults and only for entertainment purposes. Thanks

  12. Katie Capone says:

    The truth will always survive. And you don’t want that, do you? No human being that has ever been born is perfect. Perfection is god God GOD Allah whatever. Never shield your children from the truth. It weakens them. Let them see what the truth is and let them think on their own. Stop manipulating your children into believing some man-made testament about the glory of god. His glory is all around us. Use the truth to educate. Do not shield the young from the world they are our future.

  13. just think says:

    when major american theaters allowed this movie then you should be alarmed and know there is something wrong.

  14. Assalamu alaikum.

    The violence that happened was real, he amongst others were tortured and killed.

    I don’t hide this reality from my kid, they need to know what the sahaba endured, what the Prophet (saws) endured.

    I respectfully disagree, if they understand how violently they were treated they will have greater respect for their ability to stand firm in their faith and the fact he yelled out “ONE GOD” while being tortured as an adult.

    I would let kids watch the Omar series that shows this torture more life like. That is the reality and that harsh reality needs to be honored and understood, not sugarcoated.

    Just my humble opinion.

  15. astagfurallah.

    How dare anyone say that to a Mother in Islam?!

    “The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the people are safe” You don’t know her situation and family, even I don’t agree with her post at all, but she is a believer, she is your sister!

  16. Arif says:

    Being brutally honest, this is the worst review one can read trying to get a sense of the pros and cons of this movie. I came here to see if there were some honest critique. After reading this, all I got was a personal insensitive reaction to a cartoon. And the fact that the reviewer did not even watch the entire film to come and comment on it. This is one of the worst reviews I have ever read.

  17. Islam described great reward to free a slave , it was not possible in early islam to abandon slavery. but rewards and virtues are described if you free a slave.

  18. jo says:

    The film is just awesome. A piece of art on every level.
    p.s. If you walked out, then how come you give yourself the leave to write a “thoughtful” critique about it?!!

  19. What is wrong with you says:

    I’m sorry but how do you not let your children watch TV or play video games? Are they just boring husks of people!

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