Time For Ilhan

Ilhan Omar, currently the U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, is in the midst of a firestorm for comments viewed by many as anti-semitic as well as for her criticisms of some of President Barak Obama’s military policies. But before she was a headliner on the national news and a boogeywoman for the CPAC crowd, Omar first ran for State Representative in Minnesota’s Senate District 60B. Norah Shapiro’s by-the-book documentary charts Omar’s struggle in the trenches for this state office which she ultimately won in 2016 — making her first Somali Muslim woman elected to state office in America.

Mention Minnesota, aka the “North Star State,” to many Americans and the visions that come to mind probably are of frozen landscapes populated by Lake Wobegon/Garrison Keillor-types, ice fishing, and the always eternal Prince. Perhaps not as widely known is that Minneapolis, the largest city in the state, is also home to the U.S.’s largest community of immigrants from Somalia — many of them residing in Senate District 60B. For 43 years, that district was represented Phyllis Kahn, a Jewish woman cut from the same cloth as Bernie Sanders — a progressive, originally from Brooklyn, who speaks her mind with refreshing candor.

…With an undeniable charisma, deep roots in the Somali and Muslim communities of the district, and a young and vigorous staff, Omar brings a lot to the table…

Born in Mogadishu in 1981, Omar fled the conflict in Somalia and, after a brief stay in New York City, settled with her family in Minneapolis’ District 60B in 1995. The film opens in 2015 with Omar, now a young mother of three children living with her fiance Ahmed Hirsi, just after she has decided to challenge Kahn for the Senate District seat. With an undeniable charisma, deep roots in the Somali and Muslim communities, and a young and vigorous staff, Omar brings a lot to the table. Yet her fight for office, long held by a well-liked and experienced incumbent, is a daunting one, made even more difficult when another Somali-American — Mohamud Noor — throws his hat into the proverbial ring. From there, the film unfolds very much in the mold of similar docs like Bill Clinton’s battle for the presidency in The War Room and Street Fight, which documented then-councilman Corey Booker’s 2002 campaign in Newark, NJ to unseat the longtime mayor. She overcomes obligatory setbacks and prejudices, character smears (including one pushed by Fox News and right-wing bloggers that she had committed immigration fraud), and builds bridges on her path to victory.

What the film reveals is that Omar was, already in 2015, a formidable politician able to inspire people long marginalized by the political process, organize an effective political machine, and compete in a tight race to handily win the seat for the office held by a popular incumbent. While excellently crafted and at times undeniably uplifting and nerve-wracking, this is a similar story that we’ve seen played out on screen — with differing protagonists from various backgrounds — several times before. 

…one wishes that the filmmaker had done a deeper dive into the flashpoints that her candidacy revealed…

However, in an effort to get to know Omar on a more holistic and personal level — not just as an aspiring lawmaker, one wishes that the filmmaker had done a deeper dive into the flashpoints that her candidacy revealed including the gender dynamics within the Somali community and the religious tensions with her Jewish constituents. And, while hinted at, I wanted to know more about how her campaign affected and perhaps complicated the dynamics between her husband — who takes a leave of absence from his job during her run — and her children.

Finally, a more extended post-script about her election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 would have added another layer of interest and complexity to Time for Ilhan. Nonetheless, as her political star rises or falls, Shapiro’s documentary does serve as a time capsule of sorts, providing an illuminating look at a dynamic, unorthodox politician at the start of her political career.

Time for Ilhan (2018) Directed by Norah Shapiro. Featuring Ilhan Omar.

6 out of 10 stars

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *