Film Review: Sheikh Jackson

Quiet drama 'Sheikh Jackson' tells a coming-of-age story and a come-back-to-God story that barely meet in the middle.
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Set in Cairo, the thoughtful but lighthearted drama Sheikh Jackson presents a wealth of detail about its central character, a Muslim cleric named Khaled (Ahmad El-Fishawi) who harbors a secret: Before he found religion, he was perhaps Egypt’s most devoted Michael Jackson fan.

In an unhurried fashion, the film unfolds the quotidian rhythms of Khaled’s modest but comfortable life. Married to Aisha (Amina Khalil), with a precocious grade-school-age daughter, Rawda (Rawda Khamis Ibrahim), Khaled prays in his apartment, usually alone, and also leads the large congregation at his local mosque. He showers, dresses, prays, drops his daughter at school, picks her up, has meals at home, does it all again.

Yet, he’s added seeing a therapist to his weekly routine, for his mind and heart aren’t at peace. Whereas he used to cry prodigiously during prayers, overcome with awe for God’s greatness, he’s been unable to cry since the day MJ died.

Appropriately enough for a film invoking the late moonwalking hit-maker, Sheikh Jackson definitely has a good hook with its tale of an imam whose crisis of faith is triggered by the death of his favorite, and somewhat forbidden, pop star. But beyond the intriguing idea of the King of Pop as a cultural ambassador to the Arab world, director Amr Salama, who co-wrote the script with Omar Khaled, doesn’t harvest much substance from the Jackson connection.

Sheikh’s fascination might have been with Prince or Madonna, or any of the era’s famous English-speaking singers who produced danceable pop tunes that might have been deemed blasphemous in the average Muslim household. Of course, Jackson did occupy a rarefied global reach of fame that was practically unparalleled—but why should his death send this Sheikh spiraling? Answers aren’t forthcoming in El-Fishawi’s likeable but fairly one-note performance, which at least delineates the practical nature of Khaled’s crying problem. As prayer leader, he needs that tearful emotion to sway his flock. Otherwise, they’ll start to prefer that some other imam take the lead, and Khaled wants to retain his status at the mosque.

On a spiritual level, the film doesn’t crack open much insight to his religion, or his unease. Why Michael Jackson’s death, why now? The therapist, Dr. Nour (Basma, in a none-too-convincing performance) wonders, just as the audience might wonder, how deep does this problem really go? There are a few complaints at the mosque about Khaled’s less passionate praying, but his wife doesn’t really sense a problem, and no one’s life or soul seems to be in real jeopardy. So what then?

Cue the golden-hued flashbacks to his awkward teenage years, when everyone called him Doodle (Ahmed Malek), and a crush on a girl named Sherine helped unleash his unbridled obsession with Dangerous-era Michael Jackson. Doodle’s swaggering, boozing dad, Hany (Maged El Kedwany), refers to the singer as a drag queen, constantly belittling Jackson and just about anything else having to do with sensitive Doodle, who sorely misses his late, beloved mother.

As Khaled winces and prays through his blues, Doodle’s story plays out in flashback, led by Malek, who makes a strong impression as a boy willing to go to the lengths of looking like Dangerous-era MJ in an effort to win Sherine’s heart, and a dance contest. They’re both interesting performances, although not truly related as two sides of the same coin. Regardless of any physical resemblance, the actors don’t appear to be the same guy at different ages, but rather two entirely different people.

Salama keeps both stories moving, but they don’t meet where they should to produce any epiphany or surprises. Khaled hits a sort of rock bottom, amid several suspenseful interactions with his father, his caring uncle and an old squeeze, and it’s a pleasure that the plot proceeds with respect for the viewer’s intelligence. Salama rarely punctuates the point of a scene, which is a good and a bad thing.

Lost in the film’s forward motion—and vibrant dream sequences, which occasionally feature appearances by MJ himself (or, rather, the impersonatorknown as Carlos)—is a persuasive emphasis on what it is about this man’s fascination with the Man in the Mirror that really matters in how he practices his religion. As a character study, Sheikh Jackson isn’t Bad, but it’s no Thriller.

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