Sunday, June 23, 2024

East of La Brea Truly Portrays Muslims Beautifully

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East of La Brea, the Paul Feig’s Powderkeg TV produced six-episode series about two working-class Muslim American women is finally here! Running almost an hour-long, the show follows Aisha Hassan (Geffri Maya) and Farha Munshi (Kausar Mohammed) as they navigate LA and their own ethnic communities. Though short, the series touches on a number of incredibly current issues like Muslim identity (and how that is different for Muslims of different backgrounds), gentrification, Latinx identity, microaggressions, police, and what happens when nonBlack people of color speak over Black people.

Written by an entirely Muslim writer’s room with support from MuslimARC, Pillars Fund, and Pop Collab, the show comes from producer Sameer Gardezi’s Break the Room initiative. Feig’s Powderkeg launched BTR as a way to create shows by writers from marginalized communities. For example, The Great Manygoats is a comedy about a Navajo family trying to change their trading post business into a vegan sex shop and was written entirely by Indigenous writers. Hopefully, now that East of La Brea has finally premiered, we’ll get to see the rest of the shows written during the initiative!

It’s clear that the writers are writing from their own experiences and the experiences of Muslims we never get to see on TV. Aisha and Farha are both dealing with their mid-twenties having graduated from college with an English degree but neither have a high-paying, lucrative job. Aisha mostly has her life together in comparison to her roommate and best friend Farha who drives for Lyft and unlike Aisha does not go to the mosque.

Throughout East of La Brea we see how Aisha and Farha navigate life in Koreatown, Little Bangladesh, and South LA especially in relation to gentrification in their neighborhood. Moises, a mutual friend runs a new restaurant with his dad that caters to every stereotypical millennial where one egg and a few slices of avocado cost way more than anyone should want to spend.

From the start, the tension between Moises and his staff (who are all DACA recipients) is apparent as Moises is trying to change his community for the better by paying his staff a living wage though maybe at the expense of their shared culture. However, if only white people are eating at his restaurant…Moises’ story is actually one of the standout arcs.

Similarly, another arc follows Aisha deciding to speak up when one of her white coworkers continues to make inappropriate racialized comments about her hair. However, Aisha makes the situation uncomfortable for her coworker Renee (the sublime Zainab Johnson) who did not want to deal with their white coworker. It highlights how different people respond to microaggressions and neither one is better than the other.

This arc dovetails with Farha getting into trouble after she calls for a boycott against a Black hair product company when they ask her to be a spokesperson for a product. A product, mind you, that Farha wasn’t even supposed to use! What follows is a perfect explanation by Renee on how to apologize properly, not speak over other people, and for Aisha, to just listen to Renee. It’s a short and hilarious scene but perfectly gets across how to handle so many of the situations we’re seeing play out on social media right now.

While East of La Brea‘s first lead is Aisha and thus focuses primarily on her experiences, we do learn quite a bit about Farha. I won’t spoil it too much but it’s clear that she’s got issues with her parents and as we find out towards the end, an estranged sister who she feels abandoned her. It makes for really interesting television and more importantly complicates the usual narrative about South Asian Muslims who just want to be doctors, lawyers, or business people.

Which by the way, I could spend an hour talking about how incredible it is to have a story with a South Asian character who isn’t Indian or Pakistani! Farha is Bangladeshi and we even get dialogue in Bengali that sounds like a true Bangladeshi would speak it.

Those of you who have listened to That’s Haram! know that I’m tired of Bangladeshi characters (if they exist at all) portrayed by Pakistani and Indian actors (we’re not interchangeable) and just want to see the full spectrum of South Asian experiences in media! Farha who isn’t really like me, is still a relatable character especially when you get to learn more about her upbringing. It makes sense why she acts a certain way even if I did also want to yell at her a bit for selling her parents’ cultural paraphernalia for money.

East of La Brea is the first show that I’ve seen that truly gets it right and it’s not only about Aisha and Farha. We see multiple Muslim characters from the mosque scene to Aisha’s mother and father, as well as Farha’s sister and father, and some other characters in the background.

I really hope we get a second season and more content from Powderkeg because its production exemplifies what happens when white producers fund truly inclusive production teams and let them do what they know best! This show is just one of the endless so-called Muslim experience and because the writer’s room knows what’s up, the end product is incredibly nuanced and charming. Plus the show is laugh-aloud funny and poignant in its exploration of Aisha, Farha, and Moises’ internal lives.

The show is available at Powderkeg TV’s Instagram as six separate episodes or as one hour-long video (with captions) here. Go watch it so that they can go onto making more truly inclusive and representative content!

Image courtesy of Powderkeg.

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