‘In Search of Bengali Harlem’ is a documentary film about comedian Alaudin Ullah who went on a journey to learn more about his Bengali father.
Ullah and co-director Vivek Bald discovered a society of Bengali men who married Puerto Rican and African American women to build communities from Harlem to Detroit in the early 1920s.
Bald says this was a large community.
“When we started looking into the actual history, it became clear that Alaudin’s father was not an isolated case, he was part of a much larger undocumented migration of working-class folks from places that became Bangladesh, Pakistan, et cetera, who were actually coming to the United States from the early 20th century, all the way to the present,” he says.
Bald says thousands of Bengali men came to the U.S. after boarding ships in Calcutta under British colonialism, jumping ship at ports in Detroit and Baltimore.
Ullah says his interest in learning about his father’s past was spurred by a stunt in Hollywood where he says he was being cast for stereotypical roles of Muslims and South Asians. He wanted to change that narrative. What he discovered in the process was a whole different side of both of his parents and a deeper appreciation of their struggles to raise a family in the U.S. as first-generation immigrants.
“I realized I was more Bangladeshi than I thought. I would always say to my mother, ‘I’m not from Bangladesh. I’m from New York. I listen to hip-hop. I’m a Knicks fan. I love the Yankees. I’m born and bred New York.’ And she would say, ‘No, you’re from my stomach, you’re from Noakhali,’” he says.
He says the documentary helped him find a deep appreciation and empathy for his parents.
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The film will be shown at the Detroit Historical Museum on Friday at 7 p.m. as part of the Freep Film Festival’s Asian American Pacific Islander film series.