Young woman of color wearing a white hat and suit and pearl necklace standing in front of mics at a podium and signs with her name Ilhan State Representative in the background

Anyone looking for insight into Ilhan Omar, the prominent freshman congresswoman from Minnesota, is apt to be both pleased and disappointed by Time for Ilhan.

Norah Shapiro’s documentary does a good job of explaining how a Muslim immigrant from Somalia came to play such a big role on the national stage. On the other hand, it offers little help in understanding the controversies that have arisen since Omar arrived in Washington.

One thing is certain: Omar is not the kind of woman who’s deterred by long odds. That becomes apparent minutes into the film.

Walking into her young daughter’s bedroom, she’s greeted with the question “Are you president now?” Though that particular job is out of reach for Omar, as it is for any immigrant, the girl obviously thinks there is little her ambitious mom can’t achieve. And Omar seems to have passed this “can do” attitude on to her daughter, whose wall displays a list of qualifications needed to become an astronaut.

The documentary begins in 2015, when Omar is a community organizer who encourages members of Minneapolis’s large Somali population to take an active role in American culture. She jokingly tells fellow immigrants that when her family arrived in the U.S. in 1992, her English was limited to “hello” and “shut up.”

Despite her upbeat approach, Omar admits it would be hard for her, as an immigrant and a Muslim woman, to be elected to office. It takes the prodding of supporters like Hubon Abdulle of Women Organizing Women to convince her to stop dwelling on the negatives and instead focus on her strengths as a potential candidate. Even her physical attractiveness is touted as a plus.

Accordingly, Omar throws her hijab in the ring as a candidate for the heavily Democratic District 60B in Minnesota’s House of Representatives. It’s this race, pitting her against 43-year incumbent Phyllis Kahn and fellow Muslim Mohamud Noor, that takes up the bulk of Shapiro’s documentary.

What emerges is a portrait of a dogged competitor who uses charm, diplomacy and whatever else is needed to fight for victory. This particularly comes out during the caucuses when the three candidates vie for the endorsement of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. When Noor is eliminated after the first round of voting, Omar unsuccessfully pressures him to release his backers in hopes she can reach the number of votes required to garner the endorsement.

What don’t emerge from the campaign coverage are answers to questions that have been raised about Omar following recent statements that have been branded as anti-Semitic or as cavalier toward the 9/11 attacks. At best, viewers must read between the lines.

Early in her campaign for the Statehouse, Omar’s campaign director notes that Jewish opponent Kahn has been subjected to anti-Semitic attacks in the past, and he stresses that they must avoid any hint of such tactics themselves. To this, Omar says nothing but nods her assent.

At another point, Omar explains that wearing a traditional hijab became important to her following 9/11 because it showed her pride in being a Muslim woman in the face of growing anti-Islamic sentiment.

It’s not surprising that filmmaker Shapiro never asks Omar about her feelings on either 9/11 or anti-Semitism. First, Muslims have for too long been expected to answer for the behavior of others who happen to be of the same faith. Second, and more basically, Omar’s attitudes on these subjects didn’t become an issue until after she arrived at Washington. In other words, after Shapiro put down her camera

Though the documentary could be faulted for taking an uncritical attitude toward to its subject, its main problem is that it was made too soon. It does add a postscript describing Omar’s election to Congress in 2018—part of a wave of women put off by Donald Trump’s sexism—but it says nothing about subsequent Omar statements that have divided the Democratic Party.

However, the film does include one incident that helps to justify charges by Omar’s backers that she’s being subjected to unfair scrutiny because she’s a Muslim. In the face of her increasing prominence, Fox News and other conservative voices raised the false claim that she’d been married to two men simultaneously as part of an attempt to commit immigration fraud.

Otherwise, Time for Ilhan offers little help in understanding the controversies that have swirled around Omar since she arrived in Washington. It only tells us how she got there.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Time for Ilhan is available on Prime Video and other VOD platforms.

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