As an Arab American with a background in media criticism, I often feel like a broken record, calling out the endless stereotypes of Arabs in U.S. popular culture. I long for transgressive representations, those that break the mold and offer audiences thought-provoking stories about humanity. When I find them, I exclaim, “Alhamdulillah!”—an Arabic expression that literally means, “Praise be to God,” but culturally translates as: “Hell, yeah!” The independent film Detroit Unleaded deserves such a shout-out.
Written, directed, and coproduced by Lebanese-born and Detroit-raised Rola Nashef, the film has been called the “first Arab-American romantic comedy.” Though it debuted in theaters last November, Detroit Unleadedjust landed on DVD, iTunes, and VOD this March. The plot revolves around Sami (E. J. Assi), who gives up his dream of going to college in California after his immigrant father Ibrahim (Akram El-Ahmar) gets murdered on the job at the family business—a 24-hour gas station and mini-mart in the rough neighborhood East Detroit. Sami grudgingly takes over the gas station but finds himself trapped—figuratively and literally—since newly installed bullet-proof glass separates him from his customers and keeps him in what’s referred to in the gas-station world as the “the cage.” He hires his cousin Mike (Mike Batayeh) who has visions of building a gas-station empire together, but Sami has other goals. When the beautiful Najlah (Nada Shouhayib) appears, Sami finds renewed hope for an escape, but traditional dating rituals make their love seemingly impossible. Woven throughout Detroit Unleaded are themes that few films address, such as relations between African Americans and Arabs as well as tensions within the Arab community.
The Motor City and its surrounding suburbs house the largest population of Arab Americans in the U.S., but Detroit’s Arab residents rarely show up on the big screen. So Rola Nashef is not only a filmmaker but a pioneer—even if she doesn’t think of it that way. We recently sat down to chat in Los Angeles after a benefit screening of her film for the Arab American National Museum. She told me that she didn’t set out to be a voice for Arab America, although she doesn’t mind it. She just wanted to tell her story and those of her friends and family. “People in Detroit are just so smart and witty. We have our own thing going and I wanted to share that,” she says.
While she’s received rave reviews from diverse audiences, including Arabs, she’s also gotten an earful about what she should have done differently. Nashef calls the pressure put on her as an Arab woman artist “unfortunate”: “At its best, art is an expression of who you are. Once you attach an agenda to art, it becomes propaganda, no matter if it’s a positive agenda or not. So once I say, ‘I want to make a character that shows X, Y, or Z,’ then I’m propagating a certain ideology, when really, as an artist all I want to do is introduce the world to these characters that I absolutely love and let the characters inspire ideas within people, instead of me telling people what they should think.”
Detroit Unleaded was made on a small budget and Nashef found that directing the movie required the skills she had used for years as a community organizer: “pulling 100 elements together and making them work at the same time.”
The cast rehearsed for two months in preparation for the 23-day shoot, but in that time they rarely went over lines, taking the script as a blueprint. Along with doing a lot of improv, they danced the dabke, a traditional Arabic folkdance.
“For me, it was about building relationships,” Nashef explains. One key example is how she handled the connection between Ibrahim and an African American factory worker, Mr. Stevvels (Henri Watkins) “I would set them up on dinner dates and force them to sit and develop a relationship with each other. They would come back the next day cracking up because they had learned so much about each other. That was my main thing—to forge, nurture and cultivate relationships between people because it’s a very relationshipy film,” says Nashef. The connections that the actors developed in real life shine through on screen.
Nashef chose the venue of a gas station because when she moved to Detroit from the nearby suburb where she grew up, she was struck by how many Arab men work in “the cage” behind the glass. Nashef’s dad worked on a factory line for decades and she’s proud of that. However, many Arab Americans, like other ambitious immigrant populations, expect their children to be doctors and lawyers, and see the film’s representation of Arabs as blue-collar workers as negative. This point of contention speaks to how socioeconomic class background influences the lens through which people consume media.
Nashef also made the choice to intentionally leave religion out of the film. She says that once people find out her ethnicity, they want to know her religion, her thoughts on 9/11, and her political affiliations. She feels like people expect her to carry an ID card, and she couldn’t do that to her characters. Instead, the film shows how dating rituals transcend religious beliefs among Arab immigrants in Detroit. In fact, Nashef’s currently working on a documentary called My Cousin’s Wedding that delves into these traditions. The basic thing to know: you can’t date unless marriage is on the horizon and without the whole community watching. Thus, Detroit Unleaded is a romantic comedy sans sex. Najlah initially refuses to kiss Sami because she’s “not that kind of girl,” even if she does lie to her mother so she can go dancing with her girlfriends and visit Sami at the gas station. These choices provoke all kinds of reactions in audiences: Nashef says she had some filmgoers challenge her feminist values, wondering how she could make the female lead so prude, while others disapprove of a young Arab woman being so racy as to deceive her family and go clubbing.
But can a romantic comedy be romantic without the couple even touching? You have to see it to believe it, but yes. Sami and Najlah’s romance unfolds during the night shift at the gas station. Their chemistry builds as he showers her with the store’s candy, knickknacks, and gaudy jewelry. At one point, both characters lay down on the planks where employees can nap underneath the register, as if on bunk beds, with Naj on top and Sami beneath her. Naj rolls on her side, smiles and looks down at the wood that holds her, while Sami lays motionless with his eyes shut, his hands flat against the board above him. Although the film’s music plays throughout the scene, it’s as if you can hear him inhaling her perfume. When Naj’s chiffon sleeve drapes down and Sami’s hand caresses it, the sensuality drips.
Another notable anomaly is that the film does not have a hero. Nashef says she hates “the hero formula,” which puts all admirable qualities in one character and makes everyone else look subpar. Her goal was for every character to take one step forward. While watching the film, I realized how accustomed to the hero narrative I am as I longed for Sami to step up and drive across town to ask for Najlah’s hand. Yet, I found the much more organic resolution so refreshing.