By Edward Avery-Natale.
The potential conflict of God and the streets is but one collocation in a film ripe with dialectical appositions, which are themselves well represented by the choice to shoot the movie in black and white.”
Two Gods, directed by Zeshwan Ali, is a study in contrast and juxtaposition. Taking place primarily in Newark, New Jersey, the film follows Hanif, a Muslim casket maker and ritual body washer who has taken two young men, Naz and Furquan, under his wing in an effort to help them escape the fates of prison or death. Hanif works for Sunnah Caskets and it is worth our time to pause and notice that “Sunnah” is an Arabic word meaning “way,” “method,” or “habitual practice.” This etymology has a latent power in the film expressed through its juxtapositions. According to the director, “two gods” represents the struggle between the worship of God and the worship of the streets, and we can easily imagine this as two distinct “ways” or “habits” tugging on the protagonists. However, the potential conflict of God and the streets is but one collocation in a film ripe with dialectical appositions, which are themselves well represented by the choice to shoot the movie in black and white.
Beyond God and the streets, the most obvious juxtaposition in the film is between life and death. Death is omnipresent in the lives of the Newark residents. This is not because the film revolves around a casket maker and body washer, but because the realities of America’s systemic racism intersect with poverty in such a way that death is all around. We see, for example, a father ask his son what the son would do if the father died; at another point, Hanif asks Fuquan the same question; we witness the funeral of a young man killed on the streets; we also see the bodies of those who died from natural causes. We are reminded of life and death in the film as beautifully rendered shots of water representing life and bodies representing death separate scenes.
Life and death, though, comes in many forms in Two Gods. We can see life explicated into its two Greek forms: zoe (raw life, animal life, life as such) and bios (political life, civilized life, a good life worth living). The contrast between these types is a constant in the film. The residents of Newark are pressured by racist and classist systems to be little more than zoe. However, we also see that the residents are so much more, that their lives and dreams matter. In Hanif, we see the playful inner-child filled with joy running with kids on the streets, but also the devout Muslim who has dedicated himself to the care of the dead. In Naz we see the burgeoning man who hopes to do right but is called to the streets where his life could be easily sacrificed. In Furquan, we see the young boy who wants to play but also wants to see himself as a man. We learn that Furquan’s juxtaposition comes from an abusive homelife coupled with a desire to escape. In each case, the struggle between bios and zoe, and life and death is evident.
The film focuses on more than life and death, though, which allows the film to avoid the risk of pitying the characters and the community. The residents of this community know death, but they also know that this brings a certain value to life. Philosopher Todd May tells us in his book Death: The Art of Living that death is tragic and arbitrary. However, he also tells us that without death, our lives would lack the meaningfulness and personal purpose that make life worth living. In Two Gods, we see that the members of the Newark community live at the intersection of this conflictual reality. We see this in individuals like Furquan who want so badly to be grown men, but also just want to shoot water guns on their birthday. This is also shown in the community at large, which comes together in acts of support and joy even while mourning.
We see the beauty of life in this community, but this is not always an easy life. Hanif tells us, “It’s not hard to die, but they make it so that it’s hard to live.” The “they” in this deeply insightful statement is a system at large that does not care for the lives of Black people. This plays out in the narrative of Naz, who has spent time in prison and tells us that “society is always waiting for a slip up,” that “Just when [the cops] see you doin’ good, they smack you.” It’s clear that Naz hopes to be successful, but that the inequities he faces make this difficult. Ultimately, America’s systemic racism is an underlying tension in this film that plays out through Naz’s internal tensions between God and the streets and freedom and imprisonment.
In the end, this is deeply intimate film about the juxtapositions and conflicts that exist for a Black community in The United States. The contrasts in the film trace the larger disparities that exist between races and classes in American society. Even the cinematography captures this. There’s an intimacy to the way in which the film is shot. The close ups sometimes briefly blur in and out of focus and this makes the closeness and immediacy of the experience more sensual. Similarly, the conflict between life and death, joy and sadness, is intimately captured as we see Hanif singing and dancing while making caskets even while, at other times, he pays such close attention to the caskets that they might be a loved one.
This ongoing contrast between the vibrancy of life and the stillness of death, between zoe and bios, between God and the streets, between joy and sadness, between hope and despair, between freedom and entrapment, between childhood and adulthood, and between personal choice and the forces of systemic inequities, is ultimately the underlying narrative of this film. In a time when it becomes so necessary to remind viewers that Black lives matter, Two Gods shows us the vibrancy and humanity of Black lives in important and valuable ways.
Edward Avery-Natale is Professor of sociology at Mercer County Community College, NJ, USA. He is the author of Ethics, Politics, and Anarcho-Punk Identifications: Punk and Anarchy in Philadelphia (Lexington Books, 2016).