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What Riz Ahmed's Oscar nod means to South Asian, Arab, Muslim artists

The "Sound of Metal" star's nomination is seen as a win for inclusivity in Hollywood by artists who spoke with TODAY.
Riz Ahmed in "Sound of Metal."
Riz Ahmed in "Sound of Metal."Amazons Studios

Riz Ahmed’s character in the film “Sound of Metal,” Ruben, brings deaf culture to the big screen as a drummer who loses his ability to hear. His performance, which received an Oscar nomination for best actor, is also seen as a win for inclusivity in Hollywood by several South Asian, Arab and Muslim writers, actors and producers who spoke with TODAY.

“What is striking to me is that there are just so many communities who have been marginalized and underrepresented or demonized in Hollywood, and just how meaningful it is for various communities when you see yourself finally represented,” said Evelyn Alsultany, an ethnic studies expert at the University of Southern California.

“I understand why this would be meaningful to people in the deaf community. And likewise, why Riz Ahmed’s (nomination) is so meaningful to Muslims,” Alsultany said.

Though the story of Ahmed’s character isn't tied to ethnic and religious identities, the fact that a Muslim British Pakistani actor was chosen for the part signaled to artists from diverse backgrounds that representation makes a difference.

“His religious identity and South Asian identity are just part of his complex identity on screen,” said Azita Ghanizada, an Afghan American actor based in Los Angeles.

“We can be performers just like Amy Adams and Christian Bale and Matt Damon and so on, and not always have to play into a religious storyline,” she said.

Ghanizada has long pushed for representation in Hollywood. Ghanizada, who started acting in the early 2000s and whose credits include the TV series “Alphas” and “Ballers,” had noticed a need for a casting category for performers from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in an effort to provide more opportunities to diverse actors.

In response, Ghanizada said she helped pave the way for SAG-AFTRA, an American labor union representing film and TV artists, to include a MENA category through the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition she created in 2016 to support artists from that region, as well as South Asian artists.

“In the beginning of my career, when I thought I would have such a much bigger battle to fight after 9/11, and being from Afghanistan, and all of these things, it actually became harder when diversity became important, because there was no box for me to check, so I was unhireable. I wasn't white enough, and I wasn't diverse enough,” she explained.

In a recent SAG-AFTRA panel Ghanizada moderated with other actors from the MENA region, she shared her perspective on the portrayal of people from the region on screen.

“Seventy-eight percent of the time that people from our part of the world are seen on screen, they are portrayed as violent,” Ghanizada said, referencing her team's 2018 research findings on MENA actors on TV.

In addition to improved storylines for performers from the region, Alsultany said small changes like reflecting the actor’s own identity into a role, like a name change in the central character of "Sound of Metal," could represent a significant shift in representation on screen.

She said "given the weight of history that we are dealing with as a community, that it would have been really meaningful if his name would have been Ruben Khan."

Alsultany, who said she served in an advisory role on the 2019 "Aladdin" live-action remake, has researched how Arab characters or Muslim characters of various ethnicities are depicted on screen in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I think ultimately, Hollywood has been very closed, has contributed to a problem of stereotyping many groups, not just Arabs and Muslims. And now that there is an opening (with recent successes such as Ahmed's nomination and two Oscar wins by Mahershala Ali, who is Muslim), we'll see more nominations, because there are many talented people out there,” she said.

Tarek Bishara, who has appeared in TV series such as “Madam Secretary,” “Bull” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” went by the name Thom Bishops for a time in his career in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks for fear of being relegated to stereotypical roles. He now acts using his birth name.

“I really do think that representation matters. And I think that telling our own stories really matters, because for me, my inspiration is, I’ve never seen my family on screen. I’ve never seen a man in his 60s or 70s like my dad on TV, where he is smart, educated, successful, interesting, well traveled, well read, knows every bit of history you could possibly think of,” said Bishara, a Palestinian American actor based in Los Angeles.

That’s also the reason why Cherien Dabis, a Palestinian Jordanian American actor, writer, producer and director, decided to go into film and entertainment. Her feature films include “Amreeka” and “May in the Summer,” and she has TV writing and directing credits that include “The L Word,” “Ozark” and “Ramy.”

“Riz Ahmed's Oscar nod is definitely going to be helpful for that continued, kind of forward movement. And I just hope that it translates into more of our stories getting picked up and into us being in positions of power to tell our own stories, because I think that that's maybe where we're not seeing that much change quite yet,” Dabis said.

Fawzia Mirza, who identifies as a queer Muslim Pakistani Indian Canadian American writer and director, also remembers not seeing many characters who looked like her on screen and chose to write roles for herself and people like her to change the narrative.

“When I was growing up, the only brown people I saw on TV really were, like, Apu and Mindy Kaling, and Apu really doesn't represent to this day any brown person accurately that I know,” Mirza said in Los Angeles, referring to the controversial "Simpsons" character who had long been voiced by white actor Hank Azaria.

Mirza, from feature film “Signature Move” and short film “I Know Her,” makes it a goal to add diverse, nuanced experiences to her stories.

“We are often becoming whoever we are through also consuming the representation that we're seeing on TV. So better representation is everything. And we know it's out there because we see it in our friends. We see it in our communities. We see it in our families. We just need to see more of it on the screen,” she said.

Mirza remembered seeing “Sound of Metal” at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019.

“(Ahmed is) multifaceted. A poet, a rapper, activist and actor. I mean, he’s able to do it all. He’s learned ASL, he was playing the drums for this role, and when you left that theater, you were like, that was incredible,” Mirza said.

“Riz playing a role that’s Ruben, a non-Muslim, non-Pakistani character, I mean, it’s a testament to how strong of a performer he is,” she added.

Ahmed recently responded to a question on diversity in Hollywood and offered his take on MSNBC's The Mehdi Hasan Show.

“If you go back decades, you had actors like Omar Sharif playing a lead role in mainstream Hollywood epics. And if you think about that and compare that to where we are now, you could say we made progress, you could say we are back to where we need to be. I think in a way you’ve never arrived to the destination,” Ahmed said.

Despite some of the improvements made at the Oscars this year, Ahmed said there’s still work to be done, adding that “as someone who all my life was thinking about the representation of brown people or ethnic minorities or Muslims, it was eye-opening to realize, hang on a minute, there is this whole other world we need to open up in terms of representing the deaf community, the disabled community and there is still so much further to go there on screen and in our culture as a whole.”

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