Review: ‘In Search of Bengali Harlem’ Opens Necessary Conversations ⭐️⭐️⭐️

After the slap seen around the world, Chris Rock fell into another Asian-related faux pas and I immediately thought of this documentary, “In Search of Bengali Harlem.” The documentary is about a man, Alaudin Ullah,  discovering his roots and embracing his heritage with the help of scholar and filmmaker Vivek Bald. Together, they are credited as directors and writers (with Beyza Boyacioglu)  and this personal documentary should open up a dialogue between the Black African American communities and the sometimes Black, sometimes Brown South Asian communities.

Last year, Rock was on stage to announce the winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 94th Academy Awards. The Oscar went to “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” which looks at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Rock announced the win for “Ahmir Questlove Thompson and four White guys.” There were, of course, only three other guys, Asian Indian Joseph Patel, David Dinstein and Robert Fyvolent, and none of those three were KKK-approved White. Dinstein and Fyvolent were identified as Jewish by The Jewish Telegraphic Agency.  Patel was notably irate.

“In Search of Bengali Harlem” begins with Ullah recalling growing up in East Harlem. His best friend was an African American boy and he was slowly disassociating himself from his Muslim Bengali background. There were other issues as well such as the 40-year age gap between his parents, with his father often being mistaken for his grandfather.

“I looked at my father like an Uncle Tom dishwasher,” and Ullah thought,  “You don’t know anything about the hood and the projects. You’re just an old man with a cane.” But we already know that Ullah has written a play called “Dishwasher Dreams,” which is an autobiographical solo show. The show, directed by Chay Yew, is coming to The Old Globe in San Diego for its West Coast premiere in the fall of this year.

For this unfamiliar with Bald, he was featured in the five-hour series “Asian Americans,” in the segment about the fourth and fifth generation descendants of a Bengali Muslim silk trader, Mossad Ali. Ali married an African American wife, Ella Blackman. In this way, Bald shows how the South Asians sometimes merged into the African American communities. Bald is an associate professor of comparative studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of the 2013 Harvard University Press book, “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.” His website lists some family stories and the comments indicate there are more stories to be mined.

In 1998, at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Ullah was performing “Curry Power” and going by the name “Aladdin.” Bald was videotaping the set when he began talking to Bald. What Ullah knew was that his father had come to the US and married a Puerto Rican woman, moved to Spanish Harlem. After her death, Ullah’s father had married Ullah’s mother. Bald was fascinated–that meant Ullah’s father had come during a time when immigration from most of Asia was banned as the “Dusky Peril” of “Hindu Hordes Invading the State.”

The documentary follows Bald and Ullah as Bald shows Ullah the resources for researching his father’s past, making the film an instruction manual for others. But in the socio-political landscape filled with landmines of racism, this is a documentary that should start many necessary conversations.

“In Search of Bengali Harlem” made its world premiere at the 2022 CAAMFest in May (14). It won the Groundbreaker Award at the 2023 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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