This might seem an odd moment to be releasing a documentary about the meteoric rise of freshwoman U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar from Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District.
Forget the fact that the almost-worshipful “Time for Ilhan” was directed by Norah Shapiro. Because the Somali-American Muslim, a groundbreaking politician already, has been outed as an anti-Semite. Right?
I mean, Trump says it. And Fox News. So it must be true.
But Shapiro’s film puts a human face on a woman demonized by the far right and criticized by those reluctant to declare that all Israel — save for its Palestinian non-citizens — walks on water, even in her own party.
We meet her in “Time for Ilhan” braiding her daughter’s hair.
“My mom is PRESIDENT!” the kid says. The mother of three doesn’t so much correct her as want to know how she arrived at that conclusion.
“You have to work hard. And you have to do pushups like boys!”
And there it is.
“Time for Ilhan” is mostly about Omar’s scrappy 2016 race for the Minnesota State House, a black Muslim Somali-American running for a “safe” Democratic seat in the most liberal district in the most liberal corner of Minnesota (Minneapolis).
As such, it is both dated and revelatory. We see the community organizer, most active in the city’s Somali-American community.
In late 2015, she decided that those “voices in my head telling me I can’t” were wrong. “A mother, black, a Muslim woman and a new immigrant” could and should run for a state seat held by the same woman since 1972.
Phyllis Kahn, the longtime representative of a district that has seen a large influx of immigrants added to an electorate that also included a sea of college students, seemed, on a superficial level — “out of touch.”
We see her speaking before the legislature on behalf of a park allocation, for instance. Older, white, more socially conservative.
Omar saw a woman being “comfortable with constituents who are consistently unhappy” as a reason for taking her on in State House District 60B. And we see an entrenched politician letting the brash newcomer get under her skin.
Shapiro’s film documents the endless canvassing, the grass roots democracy of caucuses, a district convention, begging for votes, debating her opponents in the primary (a solidly Democratic district) and leaning on the Somali-American man, Mohammad Noor, who had come close to unseating Kahn one election cycle earlier.
We see the woman who would go on to become the first-ever Somali-American member of Congress inspire college kids (student debt is one of her cornerstone issues), women and Somali women in particular to take control of the race.
But we’re also treated to the ways the deck is stacked against relying on those constituencies. With caucuses running into business hours, only older, activist white retirees are able — most of the time — to stay the course and hold on.
Omar jokes about the button she invented, “I wear a Hijab. I’m a feminist. Deal with It.”
We hear from her sweet-natured husband Ahmed, who allows that “She is the boss around here.”
And we hear about her personal story, a motherless child of the Somali civil war, four years in a refugee camp, allowed into America, but NOT the America of beaches, palm trees, skyscrapers and movie stars — Minnesota.
As Shapiro’s film sums up Omar’s follow-up election, her move to Congress as part of 2018’s “Blue Tsunami,” in just minutes, along with the firestorm of criticism — much of it made up, some of it true but not-quite-messy-enough to warrant describing as “skeletons in her closet,” we’re left with an incomplete picture, considering the headlines she’s generating for her criticism of the Israeli lobby AIPAC.
Is she an Anti-Semite? Might she hold the views her fiercest, most unscrupulous foes ascribe to her?
Probably not. But Israel and its politics and policies toward the Palestinians within its borders are a classic “third rail” in American politics. You don’t criticize Israel without withering pushback.
And seeing her reaction to the first “scandals” attached to her by lying rumor mongers, you do get the sense of how scary being a lightning rod can be and how ill-equipped anybody would be to have her or his entire life dissected, discussed and exaggerated.
She’s almost certainly sticking her foot in it, or at least seems wholly capable of that.
The portrait that emerges in Shapiro’s brisk, revealing (but not all-access) film is of an inspiring figure, a classic American immigrant underdog making good and making her mark in the Melting Pot.
The ugly stuff? Worth looking into, and worth considering the source, too.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar
Credits: Directed by Norah Shapiro. A Flying Pieces release.
Running time: 1:29