By Shameem Razack
East of La Brea is a television mini-series that depicts the lives of various communities within Los Angeles, including two working-class Muslim American women: Aisha, a Black Muslim American woman, and her friend/roommate, Farha, a Bangladeshi American woman. Both navigating life in Los Angeles. Now is East of La Brea, a ‘perfect’ depiction of Muslim women? Well, there are not even enough depictions of Muslims and Muslim women on screen in general to compare. Furthermore, there is no need for one ‘perfect’ depiction of marginalized communities because these communities and their experiences are not monolithic. We shouldn’t be asking for perfect representations, we should be demanding various representations within the media. Demanding more and supporting content creators pushing the bounds of what is possible in the realm of media and film. There will never be one true reflection of marginalized communities. In this review, I wanted to focus primarily on one of the main characters, Aisha Hassan. I personally have never watched a series where the main character was a Black Muslim woman that has received an enormous outpouring of public support. The series initially debuted in 2018, but I recently watched the entire first season on Instagram Tv. I appreciated seeing a Black Muslim woman as the main character. In particular, within Hollywood and media, there is a lack of representation for various marginalized communities. Mainly, when it comes to representation for Muslims, it’s more than likely a depiction that creates the villain/terrorist narrative of Muslims, or they are completely erased from the story. Especially Muslim women within media, are usually depicted through stereotypes or seen as subordinate subjects with a lack of agency within Muslim communities.
The first scene in the episode, Stay Walking, opens up with Aisha praying in a masjid right after the Friday, Jummah prayer. While praying, she receives an incoming call on her phone in which a song plays. The camera pans to the women in the room who are giving stares of discomfort. One woman even goes so far to chase Aisha after she is done praying to provide her with a pamphlet that she explains is a class for ‘new converts.’ Aisha declines the invitation to the class and states that she was born Muslim, not a new convert. This is something that is continuously assumed, particularly with Black Muslims, that they must be converts to Islam while completely disregarding the history of Black Muslims in the Americas and Africa. The woman still urges that Aisha comes to the class, completely dismissing what she has said and continues to police Aisha and the way she practices Islam. The scene depicts the realities of being a Black Muslim in specific spaces. Of course, this may not be everyone’s experience, but it highlights issues such as anti-blackness that should be addressed.
Aisha works at a real estate agency and is seen mainly interacting with a fellow co-worker, a Black woman named Renee. Aisha and Renee have an interesting dynamic as the only two Black women at the office. They both experience micro-aggression within the workplace by other co-workers. However, both women react to this differently, which speaks to the overall unwelcoming workplace environment that, unfortunately, Black women experience and ordeal. Fortunately, with the recent uprisings, there has been more discussion to address anti-blackness in the workplace. Hopefully, with a second season, there can be space to develop Renee’s storyline and potential friendship with Aisha. In terms of Aisha and Farha’s friendship, there is a deep connection between them as they are childhood friends. Personally, Farha’s character can at first come off annoying, especially in the first few episodes. Later on, as viewers learn about her story and complicated relationship with her family, we begin to see her as a fully developed character. It is also interesting in the ways the show highlights the interracial friendship. Notably, in the episode when Farha receives backlash on the internet after attempting to be an ally for Black women.
Aisha’s interactions with her family members are also interesting and is a big part of her character development. Aisha’s relationship with her extended family mirrors many complex and strained familial relationships. The show makes it a point to note that some of her family members are Christian, and some are Muslim. This family dynamic is important to display on screen as it reflects a reality for many families. During a family cookout that she continuously objects to attending, Aisha is seen sitting outside of her uncle’s house looking defeated and ready to go home. After a full day’s worth of remarks made by her family members, who discuss how she does not have a career and is working a minimum wage job. Highly relatable content as I am also a recent graduate from college figuring out adulthood and whew. Aisha doubts her self due to the critiques made by the family members. Her father joins her later. It is here the audience can see a connection between the characters as it suggests that Aisha’s father may be one of the only people she feels genuinely supports her. Aisha also has a relationship with her mother, but it is unclear how close they are based on previous scenes. It is clear, though, that Aisha’s family members’ comments have potentially influenced and internalized certain viewpoints. The viewpoints she has internalized are harmful to her growth and creates an inability for her to attempt to pursue her own passions. In the finale episode of the season, she tries to submit a manuscript of a story she has written for a potential book deal, but it is quickly rejected. The publisher demands a Black trauma story in which they can exploit for profit. We later find her back at her parent’s home, potentially working on her manuscript. At the same time, viewers are left with more questions and possibilities for a potential second season.
Overall, East of La Brea is an exciting show that attempts to create more stories about underrepresented communities in television and film. Mainly, the depiction of Black Muslims in film and television is rare. So to see a Black Muslim woman as the main character on a television mini-series is necessary and vital and allows for further possibilities in the realm of storytelling. Granted, this is not the first nor the last story that is being portrayed on television. Still, East of LaBrea gives a glimmer of hope and inspiration for a variety of stories. East of La Brea allows for stories of various Muslim communities and other marginalized groups to tell their story on screen. East of La Brea allows for Black Muslim women and girls to exist on the screen without the tropes or stereotypes and reminder that ‘Muslims are just like you and me’ because we all should know that without having to watch a scripted television series. I will not hold my breath for those in Hollywood to tell various narratives of Black people. Still, I will continue to support works such as East of La Brea and, more importantly, independent films and stories that expand beyond the one singular story. In all, we need more variety, and we need those stories told by us for us.
Here is a link to the first season of East of La Brea: