Riz Test: Most films fail measure of Muslim representation on screen

Test named after actor Riz Ahmed finds negative depiction of Muslims in 87% of films

Riz Ahmed, nominated for an Academy Award for Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in "Sound of Metal" arrives at the Oscars on April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles.  - 
 / AFP / POOL / Chris Pizzello
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About nine in 10 films that feature a Muslim character portray them negatively or stereotypically, a study found.

Data analyst Shaf Choudry, who created the Riz Test to assess the representation of Islam on screen, studied more than 1,000 movies released over more than a century.

The test, named after the Oscar-nominated actor Riz Ahmed, assigns a pass or fail grade to films based on how their Muslim characters are depicted. It is inspired by Ahmed's efforts to promote diversity on screen.

It echoes the Bechdel Test, a measure of how many films represent women as independent characters.

At an event hosted by Birkbeck, University of London, Mr Choudry said that of the 865 films that qualified because they had an identifiable Muslim character, 87 per cent failed the test because they met at least one of five unwanted criteria.

The first of these is whether the character is talking about terrorism or is portrayed as the victim or perpetrator of it.

The second asks whether the character is irrationally angry. The third assesses whether they are shown as superstitious, backwards or anti-modern. The fourth is whether the character is presented as a threat to a western way of life.

The fifth test is different for male and female characters. It asks whether Muslim men are shown as misogynistic, and whether Muslim women are shown as oppressed by their male counterparts.

If any of these is true, the film fails the test, Mr Choudry said.

He said some of these trends had worsened since the 1990s and 2000s after 9/11 and the global “war on terror”.

“It’s very stark, and in my opinion very, very worrying as well,” he said.

The test can also be applied to TV shows. The 2018 BBC drama Bodyguard failed all five criteria within the opening 12 minutes of its first episode, the Riz Test creators said.

This image released by Amazon Studios shows Riz Ahmed in a scene from "Sound of Metal." Ahmed won a Gotham Award for best actor for his role in the film. (Amazon Studios via AP)
Riz Ahmed won an Oscar nomination for his role in 'Sound of Metal'. AP

Warnings over failure to represent Muslims 

Riz Ahmed warned in a landmark speech on diversity in 2017 that a lack of representation on screen could be fodder for extremists.

“What people are looking for is a message that they belong, that they are part of something,” he said.

Everything changed post 9/11. The tragedy of that day caused a huge shift in storylines for Muslim characters

“When we fail to represent, people switch off. They retreat to other fringe narratives, which is sometimes very dangerous.”

Actor Sajid Varda, star of TV shows including British teen drama Byker Grove, said people in the film industry should reject bad ideas more often.

He said the entertainment industry played a significant role in teaching people about minority groups.

“In playgrounds we’ve got children of different religions, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, and they all play happily and harmoniously together,” he said. “They’ve got more awareness of what they have in common than what divides them.

“But what happens over time is that when the exposure of the relentless narratives of fear and hatred which are delivered to them … they start looking at each other very differently.”

Varda said he agreed with Mr Choudry’s assessment that fear of terrorism had had a negative impact on the portrayal of Muslims on screen, and on many actors.

“Everything changed post-9/11. The tragedy of that day caused a huge shift in storylines for Muslim characters,” he said.

“All of a sudden, my faith was that thing that was under the spotlight. Asians and Muslims were lumped together and painted with that same terrorist brush.”

Mr Choudry said he wanted to use his data to analyse whether films that failed the test performed better at the box office.

He would also look at international comparisons to see whether Hollywood fared any better than Bollywood, he said.

The Riz Test is one of several spin-offs of the Bechdel Test, which asks whether there are two female characters in a film who hold a conversation about anything other than a man.

Variations include the DuVernay Test, which requires ethnic minority characters to have “fully realised lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories”.