Documentary Review: Newark Muslim tries to counsel teens, “Two Gods,” to better lives

If you’re Muslim and you die in Newark, chances are your body will pass through the caring hands of Hanif, a casket-maker and ritual body washer who lives and works there.

Hanif is an accomplished craftsman and a member of the majority Black city’s large Muslim community. He is affable and outgoing, and in moments where it counts, empathetic.

But he is quick to admit that when he was younger, he was in trouble — in and out of jail. He was a neglectful father, something he’s trying to make up for in his 50s. That’s why he takes an interest in two kids at a crossroads, both of them in his neighborhood.

Zeshawn Ali’s sympathetic if somewhat diffuse documentary “Two Gods” is a slice of Hanif’s life — watching him work, washing corpses with care, tidying up the rough, cheap pine coffins he builds, seeing him socialize in his little corner of Newark, a salty but friendly role model to kids looking for role models where they can kind them.

We also see Hanif’s efforts to be there” for his adult son Tyler, who missed having him as a dad when he was doing much of his growing up. We see Hanif good-naturedly trying to a father figure to Furquan, who is 12 and living with a troubled mother and her latest violent boyfriend. And we watch him struggle to reach Naz, a 17 year-old who complains about being a police “target” after an arrest, a distracted boy who makes these complaints after being picked up in a stolen car or “run in” for something else in front of a sea of pricy sneakers in his room.

“Just when they see you doing good,” the kid who is getting his cash from somewhere gripes, “they smack you.”

The biracial Furquan’s problems are with his environment, something Hanif can help with by simply asking for his “help.” He teaches the boy how to use the tools at hand to build coffins in his boss’s shop.

Tyler is amenable to a little bonding over father-son sparring, with boxing gloves.

Naz? He’s “hanging with the wrong people,” by his own admission, making mock rap videos glorifying violence, greed and guns. A dressing down from Hanif might help, or might not.

Ali’s black and white film follows one kid, “rescued” from his toxic home and taken to rural N.C., and loses track of another — as indeed do the authorities, briefly — after Naz cuts off his ankle monitor.

There isn’t much in the way of message, just a guy trying to make a difference, taking a Zen level of attention and care with his work, a regular at his mosque and setting out to be a steady, supportive presence in these young people’s lives.

“Two Gods” is a pleasant enough immersion in this world, with its close-ups of bees on flowers, birds rummaging through garbage and fly-on-the-wall scenes of Furquan in the shop with Hanif, mixing it up with him over his Super Soaker

But the movie loses its purpose and coherence whenever it drifts away from Hanif. The construction feels most haphazard when we’re following Furquan, half-following Naz and not getting much out of Tyler save for Facetime chats with his dad, getting teased for picking his nose as he does.

MPA Rating: unrated, profanity

Credits: Directed by Zeshawn Ali.

Running time: 1:22

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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