By Haroon Moghul
I was going to start this column with an apology.
Last Saturday night, my wife and I watched Kingsman: The Secret Service. We’d had enough of Netflix, so we leapt to Amazon, sacrificing good financial sense for the illusion of substantive choice. The movie was so nice, though, I watched it twice. (The second time around, it was a solo operation.) Given the seriousness of much of what I write, read, speak and advocate about, from racial injustice to epistemic bigotry to foreign policy—this week’s question was the Iran Deal or whether it’s really a bad idea to bomb another country—I no longer begrudge the break.
Kingsman appealed to me because the evil at the heart of it is somehow affecting; the film’s villain, a Mr. Valentine played by a Samuel L. Jackson who loves himself some purple light sabers, is a fantastically wealthy entrepreneur tired of inaction on global warming. His desire to help humanity butts up against humanity’s complicity in its own destruction—the Earth never factors in, except insofar as the world’s response to humanity’s perfidiousness only further imperils humanity. Valentine’s solution is deeply immoral, but given years of work in my professional field, it’s not surprising. The question is not about collateral damage.
It’s how much is acceptable. (A: A lot.)
Since I’ve started writing fiction again (for myself, for now), I focus on how movies and stories are structured, manufactured, refined, honed—breadcrumbs dropped in opening scenes return us to the plot, or explain some misdirection, many scenes/pages/acts later. A fine balance: There must be enough interconnectedness to believe the outcome plausible and reasonable, but not too much that we see it coming. Too many in-jokes, and it’s overwhelming—the filmmakers seem to be congratulating themselves. Too few, and the movie might take itself too seriously.
It’s more of an art, less of a science. The achievement in the eye of the beholder. The next day, after all, I sat down to watch Foxcatcher, a well-received movie about a wrestler and a philanthropist, but I couldn’t get past the first ten minutes even though I felt I should. Despite all the good things I’d heard, I was bored out of my mind. Fortunately, since life is short and I am increasingly appreciative of what I need or at least want to accomplish in my time on Earth, I’m not going to force myself through something just because. The gentlemanly solution in these situations is to hit up Wikipedia, find out what happened, and move on.
But a few days later, bored with Candy Crush, marooned on the Q train (we could defeat the Nazis, but we can’t rebuild the railroads), and too tired to read more of what was the otherwise outstanding book in my messenger bag—James Michener’s Hawaii; it’s not often that I can be compelled to read 900-something pages, but this was fantastic—I began daydreaming. Abruptly it occurred to me, that the two principal villains in Kingsman: The Secret Service are played by a black man (Jackson) and a French-Algerian, ostensibly Muslim, woman (who will next star in the new Star Trek movie, called Star Trek Beyond, a curiously incomplete and unexpectedly familiar title, which just hangs there like ‘Allahu Akbar’; for you ask, ‘Akbar-er than what?’). In Kingsman, therefore, the good guys are overwhelmingly men—the female Lancelot plays a tangential if supposedly important role in the wonderfully wild and wildly inappropriate final scenes—and all white at that.
White as white can be. And I thought: Does this make the movie racist?
Even if it wasn’t intended to be, surely this imbalance is worth something, means something, should demand some kind of (written) response? Because sometimes racism, sexism, homophobia, is deliberate, obvious. Sometimes its unintentionality is even more irritating—nearly every (Muslim) panel I’ve been to on Islam and women is for example a bunch of men, mansplaining, and they may not have even consciously planned to exclude women, which doesn’t mean they’re not patriarchal, it just means their patriarchy runs so deep they can’t even sense it.
But maybe we look too hard sometimes. Maybe a movie is just a movie. After all, it’s not like Valentine’s blackness caused his dastardliness, or Galahad’s and Lancelot’s whiteness necessitated or explained their goodness. (The movie does make a slow-motion nod at class mobility and hierarchy.)
A few months ago, I was invited to a Muslim conference whereat I was the only speaker who did not identify as an imam, scholar or religious leader. This left me isolated, a minority in the rare situation where our religious minority is the majority, and it left me often at perspectival odds with my co-panelists. But, fortunately, I did not repress this; years ago, I’d have been too nervous to open my mouth, to believe that I had the right to express an opinion about Islam contrary to what the longbeards (not a Dwarfish clan) would hold. In this case, a young woman asked, ‘What do you do’—she posed the question to our panel—‘when you really want to do something haram, something religiously forbidden?’
She was looking for our advice. Our help. Maybe she wanted to have sex, drink, smoke, watch Kingsman: The Secret Service (hey, some of those scenes…)—I don’t know. She didn’t specify. She didn’t need to, want to. Each of the other panelists said, in effect, that we should turn to God, and ask His help, invest more in our Islam to prevent ourselves from straying from Islam, which answer struck me as entirely backwards. If all you ever think about is what you should do, eventually you’ll start thinking about what you should *not* do. The solution to wanting less of Islam is not more of Islam. It’s not less Islam, either.
Because the options are not really about Islam and not-Islam, they are still really just Islam—in fact there are no choices. You can have more of Islam or less of Islam, but the arbiter is still Islam.
Some things mean everything. No thing means nothing. But why must everything mean everything?