“An American Prayer” Ponders the Achievability of the American Dream

Stories of conflict, resilience and the pursuit of happiness in the US

Film producer and creative Nusrat Durrani‘s new documentary, An American Prayer, responds directly to a question posed by Vincent Harding in a 2007 essay titled Is America Possible? “As Harding asked then, we ask now: Is America possible?” the film’s synopsis prefaces. “There are millions of untold tales of conflict, transcendence and exhilaration in our beautiful but bewildering country that are never seen on TV. These are the stories of our lives. The embodied policies of a nation wrestling with the project of democracy while the world watches with bated breath. Always, we have wondered if the American Dream is real. And we have often speculated on its death. Our glittering image in the world now diminished, the meaning of our symbols dissolving before our eyes, and still, most of us are trying to hold on to an idea we used to believe in.”

While Durrani doesn’t believe America is doomed, he feels its promise has dimmed. He wants An American Prayer to be a beacon; a reminder of the values it was founded upon. “Its goal is to explode inside people’s heads and hearts,” he tells us. “It is unhinged in the way art in NYC used to be.”

Through written messages, archival videos and photographs and new scenes shot over the course of 10 weeks this past summer, an inspired cast stokes excitement and emotion in its audience. The compelling group of individuals—Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist and activist; Garrison Redd, a gang violence survivor; Cian Westmoreland, a veteran and immigration activist; Liam and Rowan Kilkenny, the children behind Wolfland; Trammy Anh, a first-generation Vietnamese-American biotech executive; Adeeba Shahid Talukder, a Pakistani-American poet; and Lexie Robinson, a testament to perseverance—believes that the American Dream remains intact, albeit less accessible than advertised.

An American Prayer is “a savage act of art against the ugliness of the status quo,” Durrani says. “It’s a film about ordinary Americans in an extraordinary time—caught between love, duty, desire and stereotype produced in three countries (USA, Mexico, and Russia) and seven cities by an insane group of people who still believe America is possible.”

This sense of possibility is anchored by a reckoning with past actions and aggression, and the progressive fading of altruism. There’s desperation in this effort, which posits itself as a last-ditch attempt at steering the country clear of some sort of shattering doomsday. In reality, decline happens more subtly, with shocking moments occurring one by one, but ultimately ushering in of a new kind of “normal.” An American Prayer is a wake-up call, Durrani hopes. If nothing else, it’s a raw encapsulation of a nation riddled with inequality, immense wage gaps, success and starvation, racism, discrimination and violence as well as stories of resilience and righteousness.

In October 2020, when the film’s initial trailer debuted, it introduced viewers to one of the film’s characters, Adeeba Shahid Talukder and her poem A Song for My Nation, written in response to Allen Ginsberg’s America. It’s a haunting introduction to the full-length film.

“America, my love, your jewels perish, your seas blacken. America, we of water and clay melt in your chafing winters, your dusking streams. America, you’ve plundered the earth to build your shrine—your devotees return to their homes each night, dust-smeared, hands empty of bread. America, no one is dancing,” a voice echoes. “America, a man once told you: I can’t breathe. America, in prayer to what god did you kneel upon his neck, and stay? America, you’ve lit yourself on fire. America, you are red with fear. America, your weary cannot sleep. America, cleanse yourself. Press your wound until there is no more blood, until your walls stop shuddering.”

“A friend of mine who watched it said it was ‘a bruised love song to America,'” Durrani explains. “That’s one way to view it. I don’t care about the praise or condemnation the film might receive. Still, I hope it will make us more empathetic to those we don’t know much about and ignite a re-imagination of the American Dream, however uncomfortable that transformation might be.”

An American Prayer initially premiered through the University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art & Design Penny Stamps Speaker Series. 30-second trailers were subsequently released for each featured cast member, and can be viewed here. The full-length film will be available later this year.

Images courtesy of An American Prayer / Nusrat Durrani