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FunTimes Magazine

The Prolific Power of Dreams: A Conversation with Black Indie Filmmaker, Muhammad Bilal

May 12, 2021 09:00AM ● By Mary Hinesley
the blue cave muhammad bilal

Muhammad Bilal always wanted to be a filmmaker. In his most recent film, The Blue Cave, Ali, a Black teenager from the southside of Chicago, is driven by that same fuel. Dreams are worth fighting for, and for Ali, a character based on Muhammad’s own story, that fight consists of challenge after challenge, met with gritty determination. 

The short film runs at just 30 minutes in length, and so every detail, from the lighting to the dialogue, right down to each character’s movement, is packed full of symbolism and meaningful narrative. 

The Blue Cave opens in a scene of rage. We see Ali strangled by his stepfather, Sherman. The camera shakes, and Ali’s mother and sister plead with Sherman to stop. We don’t yet know who these characters are, but the viewer is immediately immersed in the trauma of the film through jarring action. 

Robert Barnes, Jr. as Ali, and Adrian Washington, as the Stepfather, Sherman

“The type of films I like are when you throw somebody right in. I always do something jarring to grab attention. To captivate you to see, why did that happen?” Muhammad says about the beginning of his film. 

Muhammad takes our video interview in his car, somewhere in the mountains out west. He’s on a road trip to Los Angeles from his home in New York City. The Blue Cave will screen in L.A. at the Micheaux Film Festival, one of the 17 festivals that has accepted Bilal’s film this year to date. 

The Blue Cave is up for an award in the Sci-Fi category at the Film Fest. This is especially thrilling because the event is the first in-person festival to screen in L.A. since the pandemic began. It’s hosted at the Chinese Theatre by the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an added layer of experience. 

The Chinese Theatre is the most sought-after space in Hollywood for studio premieres. Films like King Kong and The Wizard of Oz debuted there. Its history began with the golden age of Hollywood and intertwines with the dreams of today’s artists and creators. 

Bilal expresses his excitement, but he doesn’t necessarily see his film as a Sci-Fi piece. “I see it as a drama. But, Quentin Tarantino said something I thought was unique: You have eight people watching a movie, they’ll see eight different movies, and that’s okay. It’s a good point. For me, as long as it made an impression. Different people see different things.” 

Storytellers need a campfire. From production to the viewing experience, collaboration is a trait Bilal welcomes on his set. “You’re working with actors. You write the script. It’s kind of like a baby. You’ve got to let the village have a little piece of the baby. Everybody has to have some ownership to contribute, and it will come out better.” 

Muhammad Bilal, directing inside of the cave on set. 

A collaborative director must still drive the car and express their vision clearly so that other creatives can be given trust and ownership. “There wasn’t a time on set where I didn’t know what I wanted.” Says Bilal, “When you’re passionate about something, and it’s close to you, you write differently. You’re writing about the Louvre verses; you’ve been there. It’s different.” 

Clearly expressing vision was especially important in producing The Blue Cave. This film is a vulnerable expression for Bilal. Ali’s story is his own. Though much of the film showcases the challenges and agony Ali faced, it’s about much more than trauma because of the direction Bilal wanted it to take.

“I just didn’t want to make another Black movie about Black trauma where the guy just wants to survive. I wanted to make it about a young man who had a specific dream that inspired him not to succumb to the abuse around him. Dreams can be really powerful. People should fight for them and nurture them. Even at the end of the movie, you see it. Ali is not getting the support he wants, but he goes back to what he loves. He goes back to writing. He goes back to the cave. The fighting he did was so he could pursue this life he wanted as a writer.” 

Ali inside of the blue cave. 

Bilal credits his knack for toeing this line of directorial ownership and creative collaboration to his many years as an educator, in the classroom, and as an administrative principal. Though he wanted to write and create films his entire life, he waited until his kids were grown to transition from a career in education to a filmmaker. Bilal was 38 when he went to film school for his MFA. But all the while, writing from the heart was something he encouraged the young people around him to explore. 

“That’s one thing I used to do with my students. Like, write about it. Write about something.” Bilal pauses for a moment and thinks contemplatively. “You ever feel like Napoleon felt after they exiled him? You ever felt exiled? Write Napoleon a letter. It can be supportive.” 

Bilal believes we all must nurture our dreams, and as a community, we should encourage each other’s dreams too. This sentiment continues throughout our entire conversation. Muhammad is precisely the type of person you would want as a teacher, and creator, someone who cares deeply and sees things that are not on the surface. 

The Blue Cave is Bilal’s first film post-graduation. He sees his art as a form of continued therapy and healing, which stems from deep roots and years of inner work. Though most of the action in the film takes place with other male characters, the most heart-wrenching scene occurs through a conversation between Ali and his mother. This is something that Muhammad has had to work through in his life too. 

Actress Patrice Battey, who plays Ali’s Mother, Khadijah. 

“I did the therapy, and that was where most of the major healing took place. Where I could be open, not blame myself, and not be angry at my mom. I see her as a person who has her own flaws. That type of anger isn’t there. I understand she needs therapy. Having therapy with a professional helped me get to that point, where now I can make a film and heal even further by being open through the film.” 

Bilal plans to have a long road ahead in the filmmaking industry. Already thinking about what’s next, he shares his plans to partner with the non-profit, Black Men Heal, whose mission is to provide access to mental health treatment, psycho-education, and community resources to men of color. Together they will work towards Bilal’s next project, a short film that will be titled Perdido, a Spanish and Portuguese word that translates in English to mean “lost.”’ 

“My next film is not directly connected to The Blue Cave; it’s more indirect. The film is going to deal with the idea, how does someone like Ali heal? Through therapy. How does the trauma he went through affect his relationships? How does he deal with things that trigger him? 

Bilal plans to begin shooting Perdido this August and wrap up post-production by the end of the year. 

“Just because Ali is smart, and he does well, that untreated trauma is gonna surface and cause problems down the line. And in the Black community, specifically with Black men, I know we have toxic masculinity in every race, but specifically with Black men, how does Ali handle things? Crying, being betrayed, feeling hurt. What toxic traits did he pick up, and how does he deal with them? Through therapy.” 

Bilal and Black Men Heal plan to fundraise for Perdido together. The non-profit found Bilal’s film, The Blue Cave, and the partnership was born. There is a guiding force behind Bilal’s work that speaks to the power of getting therapy and healing. 

Throughout The Blue Cave, there are moments of beauty and hope inside of Ali’s world. The cave is a place of his own where Ali can finally breathe, a place he feels safe to create. Shimmering blue light bounces off of the enclosed cave walls. Magical music plays and beckons adventure through a call our young hero must journey towards. Ali uses his hands to make his way along the cave’s rocky edges; he moves forward, feeling his way through blue hues in the dark. 

Ali’s characters come alive after he writes about them in the blue cave.

“Everyone wants to know what happens next to Ali. Well, the next step is, he’s going to have to heal from this trauma. He’s gonna have the issue of trusting women after he dealt with his mom. He’s clearly gonna feel a certain way when someone tries to attack him. He may not fight with his fists, but he may have a sharp tongue, be very standoffish, and just cold.” Muhammad pauses and continues, “Which is something I experienced for a long time until I got therapy.” 

The Blue Cave is a story for dreamers created by a dreamer. It’s a film that speaks to the determination and power our dreams can provide us in the face of extraordinary adversity.  

“A lot of people who see the film, they talk to me about stuff they’ve gone through. That’s my biggest response. I think it’s awesome. They know it’s my story, so they feel comfortable opening up.” Bilal says. 

After our conversation, Muhammad has to get back on the road. He has a few hours left until he reaches L.A. The festival screens his film later that evening in Los Angeles. 

Before he hops off our call, Bilal leaves me with this, “I didn’t come for the award. You can’t get too wrapped up in what a jury says about your film. Why did I become a filmmaker? To share my work. And that has to be the focus.” Bilal says, “There is much more content to come.” 

Muhammad at The Chinese Theatre screening of his film, The Blue Cave,  at the Michaux Film Festival in L.A. 

Be sure to follow Bilal on Instagram: @the_blue_cave 

Check out Bilal World Entertainment’s website to stay tuned on future projects! 

 Mary is a millennial currently based in Nashville, TN. She studied Political Science & English at the University of Tennessee and went on to work in the NYC Mayor’s Office following graduation. She is an Americorps VISTA alum. Mary later transitioned into writing for brands and creative advertising agencies as a copywriter & blogger. (That said, she has serious doubts about late capitalism but has been known to partake in spurts of online shopping for ridiculous items- like the perfect selfie stick or that handmade candle kit she has never used.) 

Mary enjoys connecting, learning, and sharing stories. She is particularly interested in political, community, or historical pieces, and those that seek to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental health. As a white cis-gender female, she is an advocate for racial and gender equity. 


Instagram: @ihailmary 

Inquiries: [email protected]

Read more from Mary Hinesley:

The Radical Origins of Denim Day & 4 Bold Black Designers to Celebrate Now

Nashville Hot Chicken Royalty: The Head that Wears the Crown

5 Ways to Cope with Stress in 2021