The year 2016 was one of incredible potential. In the wake of Obama’s reign as Commander-in-Chief, the time seemed ripe to continue on a progressive, historic path with the next sitting president. Donald Trump was elected president instead. Before this however, a historic first took place in Minnesota’s House of Representatives race. Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American Muslim woman, became the first Somali-American legislator in Congress. Director Norah Shapiro documents her rise to political power in Time for Ilhan.
The film opens with Ilhan preparing her daughters for school. It’s an intimate, motherly scene that sets the tone for the accessibility of Ilhan’s rhetoric and personality, and also the closeness with which she holds her personal life. A refugee of Somalia’s civil wars in the 1991, Ilhan is sharp, emotive and dogged in her pursuit of the senate seat. Shapiro’s one-on-one interviews with her reveal just as much. This is complimented by various conversations with Ilhan’s circle: her husband, her matronly elders and her campaigners.
However, Time for Ilhan makes time for more than just the home team. Shapiro crosses camp lines, dialoguing with incumbent Phyllis Kahn, whose respect for Ilhan during the campaign trail extends about as far as the average middle finger. Of course, what can one expect? They were running against each other after all. The film also illustrates that, despite Minnesota’s sizeable refugee communities—Somalis especially—many of Ilhan’s non-Somali, target voters seemed indifferent towards the election in question. Ironically, this is compounded by Ilhan’s other competition: her own community. While Kahn holds the majority of power, Ilhan must also contend with Mohamud Noor, a fellow Somali-American whose supporters favor his politics as much as the equipment between his legs.
Here we see that latent (and some outright) misogyny and patriarchal push-back play a role in Ilhan’s story. Shapiro makes a point to have some clear—albeit kid-gloves-laden—attention paid to the tensions that arise when a Somali Muslim woman is running for a position of particular power when there are so many able-bodied Somali Muslim men around. A heated exchange on the floor of a delegate vote between Ilhan and Mohamud in particular reveals the layers of the fight at hand. In the moment, Mohamud dismisses Ilhan and outright lies about his previous kindly offers to her. It seems that he clearly didn’t expect her marshaling the support she would later hold, allowing her the time to even confront him at the vote in the first place.
Despite all these thematic overtures, and a late-act scandal that could’ve been pulled directly from, well, Scandal, Time for Ilhan is peculiar in that it’s underwhelming. There’s no drama built upfront around Ilhan’s inevitable win (the film was released in September 2018), and there’s not much built around exactly why we should watch a propped up, behind-the-scenes-esque view into her campaign. In this instance, the film loses gravitas by being so deeply committed to cinéma vérité—by working so hard to not insert the filmmaker’s presence or direction into the film, Shapiro has made a feature-length news report that feels both late and unfocused. Without unearthing anything new or providing some guidance that pushes beyond the barebones cinderella story, Time for Ilhan often teeters between virtuosity and abject flatness. This is a tragedy, because the film does hint at so much more to explore, examine and historicize: from refugee journeys to the fact that Minnesota is home to such a unique and perhaps antithetical community, when juxtaposed against the the surrounding culture of the down-home, predominantly white, midwest. This of course says nothing of the cross-cultural exchange and ultimate assimilation arc of Ilhan’s own ascent.
My position on this was confirmed for me in the final scenes, where the credits play out over the rising tide of women spurred by Trump’s ascent to power. Shapiro most likely thought weaving Ilhan’s story into the larger cultural trend would be a rousing battle cry. But, it felt so generic. Specifically, in the way that the whitewashing of the particulars of individual narratives—like the Women’s March, or the concept of “women of color,” or the origins of the “#MeToo” movement—are uniquely poised to be.
Without any examination and harder looks at Ilhan’s issues within the community she seeks to serve, her political policies and positions, more interviews with the competition and her constituents, or even with Black Muslim scholars to speak on the significance of the moment, Time for Ilhan feels incomplete. For such a seemingly important story to be told so loosely, it signals that it’s just the right amount of color in a larger narrative that seeks to augment itself with poignant, soundbite-able anecdotes versus realized storytelling about complex and contentious living histories.
Malik Adán is a film and media critic. His words have landed at FilmThreat and REELYDOPE. A lover of food and most genre entries, his tastes are as broad as his afro. His work can be found on Rotten Tomatoes, malikadan.com or in the moment on Twitter @dapisdope.