“It’s not hard to die. They’ve made it so hard to live,” says Hanif, preparing a coffin from his workshop in Newark, New Jersey in “Two Gods.” There’s never a dull moment in his company when there’s sadly never a shortage of work, but also when he’s so obviously he’s chosen to be vital, cranking up the radio while on the job to dance every now and again and never too busy to play with Furquan, a 12-year-old from the neighborhood who comes around with his super soaker. “Don’t let him babysit for you,” warns his niece Jane, after once calling home to find that Hanif had fallen fast asleep while her children ran amok. “[But] I let him be an example to my kids to see you can come out of that,” she adds, being somewhat vague about her uncle’s past.
Filmed in soulful black-and-white, there’s always something lurking in the shadows in Zeshawn Ali’s captivating feature debut, but true to Hanif’s Muslim faith, it bears witness to characters trying their best to move towards the light. While Hanif is a child at heart, he’s portrayed as a rare elder in the African-American community in this neck of Newark where plenty of kids have been left fatherless, from Furquan who’s responsible for putting the lighting the candles on his own birthday cake to Naz, a teenager raised by his mother to think “society is waiting for [him] to slip up” who looks to Hanif as “an older, older brother.” It isn’t because Hanif is perfect that he’s held up as a role model, but because he isn’t, having left his own son Tyler without a father for his formative years as he served out a prison sentence, yet regaining his footing with a job at Sunnah Caskets, finding religion and showing that in a place where a criminal record seems like an inevitability, there remains the possibility of a meaningful and prosperous existence.
At first, this makes it feel like the tragedy has already happened in “Two Gods” when there’s a certain resignation to a cycle of life for young men in the community that seems as certain as death, much as the local morticians do their part to raise awareness of the premature mortality rate from crime in the area with rallies around empty caskets. However, Ali puts in the time to show how it continually unfolds in the most quiet of ways when no matter how much Hanif and his two young disciples have worked at their faith, it could all be lost in an instant when the temptation to make a little extra cash by dealing drugs or theft lurks as if it’s the grim reaper, so engrained culturally as a way to make ends meet as the struggle is to do so.
You’re rarely, if ever, exposed to the threats to the main characters in “Two Gods,” only the fallout and when Ali invests so much in presenting the rituals of daily life and the positive forces to be found in the community, the possibility that it could all be taken away is more tactile the more ambiguous and inexplicable it is. Although the suggestion that Hanif, Naz and Furquan have so little control over their destiny can feel frustrating at times, the notion that they have only each other to rely on as they are left to the whims of a society that took shape generations before them, either by a divine hand or human failing, becomes a source of great strength for both those on screen and the film itself.