By the early 1930s, it might surprise you to learn, Pittsburgh had a sizable and growing number of what filmmaker Haroon Al-Qahtani calls "indigenous Muslims": Black Americans who adopted some version of Islam. While it has its faults, this locally produced, feature-length documentary is an occasionally fascinating look at that community's history.
True, for better and worse, to its title, An Oral History suffers the shortcomings of many documentaries about the past: a heavy reliance on extended talking-head interviews. A few intriguing archival photos notwithstanding, Al-Qahtani tends to let his assortment of local experts ramble, which doesn't make a complex history any clearer.
The movie's first half is particularly disappointing. While speculation that Muslim West Africans made pre-Columbian trips to North America, for instance, is tantalizing (if sketchily sourced), Al-Qahtani doesn't manage to weave his interviews into a credible, authoritative or coherent account of Islam here in the 1920s and '30s. Viewers might remain confused about the differences among and linkages between the strains of Islam represented by Moorish Science Temple, Ahmadiya, Nation of Islam and the Sunnis. And the implication that there were no immigrant Muslims here until the '70s is both hard to fathom and never explicitly addressed.
Better covered are time periods within living memory, as recounted from first-hand experience by area Muslims. We learn, for instance, how Islam's popularity among blacks was abetted by Christian churches' failure to address the legacy of slavery, as well as by its own appeal to the downtrodden through social empowerment and the promise of inclusion in what one interviewee calls the "universal family" of Muslims.
Especially engaging are segments featuring Mustafa Hussain, founder of Pittsburgh's branch of the Nation of Islam -- and the man who hosted Malcolm X when he visited Pittsburgh to write his Pittsburgh Courier column, "God's Angry Man."
A prefatory note from Al-Qahtani humbly submits An Oral History as a starting place for more exploration. The material here does suggest there is plenty of room to document Muslim life (especially NOI activity) here in the '50s and '60s. And there's surely further opportunity to examine contemporary discontents within the community of Muslims -- which one critic charges is preoccupied with the need for acceptance by the larger society.
An Oral History of Islam in Pittsburgh airs 9 p.m. Sat., Feb. 24, and 11 p.m. Wed., Feb. 28. PCTV 21. It is available for download at www.islaminpittsburgh.com.