Ghosts of Sugar Land

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Ghosts of Sugar Land Movie Poster Image
Docu shows young Muslims worrying about radicalized friend.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 21 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Don't judge people by their appearances. Devout Muslims are also loyal American citizens. We don't always know why people become radicalized.

Positive Role Models

Friends still seem loyal to and worried about "Mark," envisioning a best-case-scenario in which he wasn't really radicalized but rather an FBI informant just posing as a radical Muslim among ISIS members to gain information to help the United States.


Young American Muslims worry that an American friend of theirs, recently espousing jihad against America online, might have been killed since he moved to Syria. Friends discuss violence against Muslims. The death of nearly 3,000 Americans during the 9/11 attack is the unspoken backdrop.


"F--k" and "s--t."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults smoke cigarettes. A man talks about going to a club to drink and dance.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Ghosts of Sugar Land examines the radicalization of a suburban Houston black man who converted to Islam and then abandoned his Muslim childhood friends to live in the Islamic State in Syria. There's talk of race -- the friends speak of themselves as "brown" men hanging out with a "black" man -- and the oppression and bias that they live with. The men who are born Muslims regret any role they may have played in their black friend's conversion and radicalization. All but one denounce his talk of jihad, or war against infidels (those that don't accept Islam). Language includes "f--k" and "s--t." 

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What's the story?

GHOSTS OF SUGAR LAND is a 21-minute documentary focusing on a tight group of American-born Muslim friends whose close black friend, referred to here as "Mark," converted to Islam in high school to feel more like a part of their group, and then radicalized. After that, he disappeared, revealing later that he moved to Syria from where he espoused jihad on Facebook and other social media platforms. Even though they recognize that "Mark" was alienated and struggling to find his place in life, some of the friends can't accept his conversion to radical Islam and speculate that he's actually an FBI informant just posing as a radical to infiltrate ISIS. One friend says he prefers believing that story to believing that this close friend could espouse "bulls--t" about jihad.

Is it any good?

At 21 minutes, this movie provides some insights into the way many young American Muslim men feel about the unfair animosity and suspicion cast their way by fellow Americans. Ghosts of Sugar Land  also does a good job at showcasing the legitimate frustration of law-abiding, loyal American citizens tired of being judged for the misdeeds of other members of their faith. All the interviewees wear silly masks to cover their identities on camera, underscoring how much young Muslim men fear being associated with a friend now espousing jihad.

But the masks also send a mixed message about the seriousness of the film and the ability of director Bassam Tariq (co-director of These Birds Walk) to create and maintain an even and convincing dramatic tone. One guy wears a Spiderman mask and a pair of Batman pants as he speaks to the camera, which makes this piece feel a bit jokey and makes us wonder if the whole thing might, in fact, be a parody. At other times, this looks like nothing more than several TV news interviews randomly strung together. Any high school communications teacher would be impressed if this were turned in to fulfill a current events assignment, but as a mainstream movie it lacks the kind of structure, forethought, or cohesiveness that could make it great. The film did win a Sundance Film Festival Short Film Jury award, reflecting that at very least it's a good start in providing an antidote to media memes that present Arabs as automatic villains and terrorists.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why young American-born Muslim men fear reprisals from Americans. How much anti-Muslim sentiment do you sense in America today? Do you think people stereotype Muslims because of the attack on America on September 11, 2001?

  • Why is it unfair to assume that all Muslims are anti-America, like the Muslims who attacked the World Trade Center?

  • "Mark" is described as an outsider by his friends in Ghosts of Sugar Land. Why do you think an outsider might change his religion or take up violent and radical views against his native country?


Movie details

  • On DVD or streaming: October 16, 2019
  • Director: Bassam Tariq
  • Studio: Netflix
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Run time: 21 minutes
  • MPAA rating: NR
  • Last updated: July 17, 2020

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