Riz Ahmed speaks out about negative portrayal of Muslims on-screen

Oscar-nominated actor ‘fed up’ with absence or demeaning depiction of Muslims in films

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Plot: A heavy-metal drummer's life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing. 
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British Academy Award-nominated actor Riz Ahmed has spoken out against the negative portrayals of Muslims on-screen.

His public criticism comes after a study was released by a US think tank that examined diversity in entertainment and the portrayal of Muslim characters in top international films.

The report, “Missing and Maligned”, published by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and funded by the Ford Foundation, found an “erasure and demeaning depiction” of Muslims on-screen in the top 200 most-watched films.

“I’m fed up of seeing Muslim characters on screen either negative or non-existent. The industry must change,” Ahmed, a Muslim of Pakistani heritage, wrote on Twitter.

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The actor said he was “launching a solution” to the problem through a new fund for Muslim filmmakers in association with the Pillars Fund, an organisation that works on amplifying the stories and talents of Muslims in the US.

The $25,000 artist fellowship award for Muslim storytellers is backed by a host of other notable Muslim performing artists, including two-time Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali and Golden Globe winner Rami Youssef.

"The problem with Muslim representation is one that can't be ignored any more and it's one that I can't fix alone," the actor, who is known for his roles in Four Lions and Nightcrawler, said.

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 21: Riz Ahmed is seen at the "Mogul Mowgli" press conference during the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 21, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

“I ask myself if I am the exception to the rule, then what must the rule be about people like me?”

The Sound of Metal star shared a troubling experience from 2006 when, upon his return home from a win at the Berlin Film Festival for his role in The Road to Guantanamo, he was accosted by UK security officials.

Instead of being greeted as “heroes”, he said he and his crew were detained and interrogated.

“They put their finger in my face and asked me if I became an actor to further the Muslim struggle.”

Despite his many career successes since, he said that his experience at airports has not improved much over the years.

Being the first Muslim to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar this year was, he said, a "bittersweet moment" and created conflicting feelings of "personal gratitude" and "tremendous sadness".

“How is it that out of 1.6 billion people, a quarter of the world’s population, none of us had ever been in this position until now?”

The study said that out of the 200 films watched in the study, 181 – more than 90 per cent – had no Muslim characters at all and only 1.6 per cent of the 8,965 speaking characters were Muslim.

The fair and diverse representation of non-white characters in popular films has become a hot topic in the industry in recent years.

This year's Oscars, in which Chloe Zhao became the first Asian woman to win Best Director, was lauded for being the most diverse awards yet, but many professionals in the industry say more needs to be done.

On Friday, the arts organisation for Middle Eastern and North African professionals, Mena Arts UK, published an open letter criticising the new production of Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for the lack of diversity among its principal characters.

“As you well know, the story of Joseph is a Mena story with Mena characters,” the organisation said in the letter, which was also sent to the musical’s creator, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Set in ancient Egypt, the show is loosely based on the biblical story of Jacob and his son Joseph.

“Our UK industry has an abundance of Mena talent, including performers with the skills and experience required for professional musical theatre. We therefore find the casting choice very disappointing and confusing,” Mena Arts UK said.