For the first time in the Academy Awards’ history, the best actor category includes a Muslim nominee. Riz Ahmed is on the Oscar ballot for Sunday night’s award show for his portrayal of a drummer who loses his hearing in “Sound of Metal.”
The mere presence of Ahmed’s name and multihyphenated identity in the list of best actor candidates carries a significance that easily eclipses his individual success.
The British Pakistani actor’s nomination gives him a certain cachet within the industry and could catapult his surging career to astronomical heights. But the mere presence of Ahmed’s name and multihyphenated identity in the list of best actor candidates carries a significance that easily eclipses his individual success.
For decades, Hollywood has regularly featured Muslim tropes such as the violent terrorist, the wealthy and crooked Arab sheikh and the woman who is either a fully veiled subordinate or a lascivious belly dancer. Yet a confluence of the #OscarsSoWhite social movement, Tinseltown’s push for greater Muslim inclusion as a counter-response to former President Donald Trump’s virulent Islamophobia and Ahmed’s own considerable talents allowed him to make a dent in these entrenched stereotypes.
Though Hollywood has been replete with these facile and dehumanizing depictions since its earliest days, it was eminent academic Edward Said’s introduction of the seismic postcolonial idea of Orientalism in 1978 that illuminated how the West “otherized” the Orient (the Middle East, North Africa and Asia) and regarded it as violent, savage and exotic. It is these perceptions that informed Hollywood’s ugly and un-nuanced Muslim caricatures.
Jack Shaheen, who researched the representations of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood, concluded to The Guardian that they have “been the most vilified group in the history of Hollywood.” His 2001 book, “Reel Bad Arabs,” dissected 1,000 films made between 1896 and 2000 and found that only 12 portrayed Arabs or Muslims positively.
The scope narrowed further after Sept. 11, as American Muslims were increasingly seen through the lens of national security and radicalization. Thisled to the emergence of the “good Muslim” and “bad Muslim” dichotomy. A good Muslim was a dependable patriot who combatted terrorism, while a bad Muslim abetted or committed terrorism. Though the good Muslim character gained traction in Hollywood, it further limited the range Muslim characters could have on screen.
It is within this constricted and bigoted space that Ahmed, who also raps under the name Riz MC, pursued his artistic goals. The Oxford-educated son of working-class Pakistani parents who immigrated to England in the 1970s, Ahmed found his affinity for acting to be a natural consequence of the many characters, identities and “costumes” he had while growing up.
But he was acutely aware of how success in Hollywood could be frustratingly glacial and uncertain for someone who looked like him. In a 2016 Guardian essay, Ahmed laid out the traditional stages ethnic minority actors must usually pass through to get to the “Promised Land” — playing a character “not intrinsically linked to his race.” The first is the “two-dimensional stereotype” (e.g., terrorist, cab driver or convenience store owner) and then the “subversive portrayal,” in which roles are still tied to one’s ethnicity but capable of challenging established stereotypes.
Ahmed, however, eschewed the reductive roles that were readily on offer post-Sept. 11, making his achievement all the more remarkable and significant. He managed to start at stage two by playing a British Muslim who is mistakenly captured in Afghanistan by American forces in “The Road to Guantanamo,” an inept British jihadi in the terrorism satire “Four Lions” and a Pakistani who becomes disenchanted with America after 9/11 in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”
That built a credible portfolio that paved the way for the 2016 blockbuster successes of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “The Night Of,” which bagged the Brit an Emmy for his performance as a young Pakistani American man who is accused of a grisly murder.
Wajahat Ali, a playwright and columnist for The Daily Beast, told me he attributed Ahmed’s “mainstream entrance” to non-Muslim roles to his bringing “humanity and layers to the roles of the South Asian and the Muslim. Instead of being a simplistic trope, it becomes something more.”
While the rapper-actor has broken from ethnic characters previously in “Jason Bourne” and “Venom,” neither character quite compares to his depiction of a heavy-metal drummer named Ruben in “Sound of Metal.” Through Ruben, a deaf ex-heroin-user with peroxide hair and ambiguous origins, Ahmed aims to achieve more than just on-screen representation of brown and Muslim communities. While the Oscar nominee has spoken repeatedly about the need for people to see themselves reflected in his work, he hopes that layered characters like Ruben can stretch culture enough to make us see and care for the stories of those who differ from us.
This Oscar moment is also possible due to factors that go beyond the heft of Ahmed’s talent, sweat and chosen roles. In particular, Trump’s animus toward minorities and marginalized groups, the #OscarsSoWhite movement against the absence of nonwhite and female nominees and the social justice protests following George Floyd's death have precipitated both a reckoning with racial inequities and a groundswell of support for greater representation.
"The way in which Muslims have been portrayed in Hollywood for the last century is an emergency situation," Evelyn Alsultany, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, told me. "With the Trump presidency, things came to a fever pitch, and Hollywood felt a sense of responsibility."
No single film, TV show or actor’s performance will ever pretend to upend Muslim stereotypes or capture every Muslim’s experience. Nor should it be expected to.
But one Oscar nomination will hardly alter the trajectory of Muslims in Hollywood. As Ali, the playwright, put it, “It’s a step. Is it going to be an overnight magical panacea for racism and structural inequality? No.” But, he continued, “Will it be a nice little crack that pushes us forward, that gets us more into the door as we venture through to the ‘Promised Land’? Yes.”
No single film, TV show or actor’s performance will ever pretend to upend Muslim stereotypes or capture every Muslim’s experience. Nor should it be expected to. But it can surely start a conversation and carve out a small space that can be expanded by others. In this way, regardless of whether Ahmed takes home a golden statue Sunday night, he has already succeeded.