Actor cites ‘racist’ Hollywood films and urges industry reform to end stereotypes that drive ‘policies enacted and people killed’
Riz Ahmed has announced a new initiative to combat the “problem of Muslim misrepresentation” on screen, saying: “The Islamophobia industry is one that measures its cost in blood.”
In a passionate speech addressed to the film industry, posted on social media and YouTube, the Sound of Metal star described his own difficult experiences, including aggressive interrogation at airports, and said: “The problem of Muslim misrepresentation is one that can’t be ignored any more … and it’s a problem that a handful of prominent Muslims in the business cant fix.”
Referring to an essay he wrote for the book The Good Immigrant in 2016 and printed in the Guardian, he added: “The progress that’s being made by a few of us doesn’t paint an overall picture of progress if most of the portrayals of Muslims on screen are either nonexistent or entrenched in those stereotypical, toxic, two-dimensional portrayals.”
The actor gave harsh criticisms of the Oscar-winning films American Sniper, The Hurt Locker and Argo, calling them “frankly racist” and that they are “films that dehumanise and demonise Muslim characters, insofar as they are the perpetrators or victims of violence, unworthy of empathy or incapable of empathy”. He also said he was “gutted” over the depiction of Muslim characters in the Amazon series The Boys, “a show which I loved”.
Saying “this wouldn’t happen to any other minority group”, Ahmed pointed out the shortcomings of Marvel blockbuster Black Panther (“one of the most woke progressive mainstream moments in our culture in recent years”) in which Muslims appear in the opening scenes as terrorists carrying out a kidnap.
Ahmed’s speech came alongside the release of The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, co-published by his production company Left Handed Films with the Pillars Fund, and a research study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, entitled Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies.
Of the 200 films analysed for the latter study (including 100 from the US, 63 from the UK, and 32 from Australia), less than 2% of speaking roles were of Muslim characters. In US and UK film this fell to 1.1% in both instances. (This compares to national population percentage estimate of 1.1% in the US and 5.16% in the UK.)
The study also analysed elements of the portrayal of Muslim characters, finding that 39% of Muslim characters in the sample films were the perpetrators of violence and 53% were the targets. Over 58% of Muslim characters were migrants or refugees, nearly 88% spoke no or accented English, and over 75% wore clothes related to their religion.
The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion makes a number of recommendations to the film and TV industry, including “sunsetting terror tropes” and hiring Muslim creators to first-look deals. The report also suggests industry organisations “formally recognise Muslims as a marginalised, erased, and under-resourced group in your diversity, equity, and inclusion programmes”, “reform casting practices” and “intentionally seek out polycultural Muslim talent”.
In a statement on the Pillars website Ahmed added: “The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded. The data doesn’t lie. This study shows us the scale of the problem in popular film and its cost is measured in lost potential and lost lives.”
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