How Riz Ahmed is increasing Muslim representation in film

Riz Ahmed is operating late. The London-based actor is in New York in mid-September for conferences, interviews, picture shoots, and fittings. He received caught in visitors, after which he realized he forgot the important thing to his Airbnb. “This is what actually productive individuals do,” he jokes as he settles behind a desk for our chat through Zoom, about an hour after the appointed time. “That’s truly one of many secrets and techniques I wish to share together with your readers.”

No matter system Ahmed has or doesn’t have in place, it’s working. Since his Oscar-nominated efficiency as a drummer who loses his listening to in the 2020 film Sound of Steel, Ahmed’s agenda has been full of a dizzying array of tasks. He launched an album, The Lengthy Goodbye, on his personal imprint, Mongrel Information. He cowrote, produced, and starred in Mogul Mowgli, a film a couple of British Pakistani rapper who grapples with id points whereas confronting a debilitating sickness. He’s tackling the function of Hamlet in a film adaptation written by an Oxford classmate. In December, he stars in the film Encounter as a Marine saving his household from an obvious alien menace.

He has additionally emerged as Hollywood’s busiest and most seen Muslim actor, and one in all a small variety of Muslim performers tapped to play characters whose ethnicity and religion aren’t even remarked on. He is aware of that he’s in a uncommon place throughout the leisure enterprise, and any enterprise, for that matter, and he’s taking the duty significantly. Over the previous yr, Ahmed has grow to be the business’s main advocate for increasing Muslim representation in media, each on and off the display screen.

It is a frightening job. Twenty years after the September 11 assaults, bias and discrimination in opposition to Muslims persists. Within the months following former president Donald Trump’s govt order banning journey from predominantly Muslim international locations, practically half of Muslims in the U.S. surveyed by the Pew Analysis Heart mentioned they’d skilled discrimination due to their faith. Pew analysis additionally reveals that People constantly give adverse “rankings” to Muslims (and atheists) when polled about their sentiments on religion.

Hollywood, which has been pushed over the previous few years to reckon with sexism and racism, has been manifestly silent on the subject of its remedy of Muslims. A couple of years in the past, Ahmed began talking about how Muslims are portrayed in motion pictures and tv, sharing private anecdotes and admonishing the business for perpetuating stereotypes each innocuous (cab drivers, shopkeepers) and menacing (terrorists). He quickly realized he wanted knowledge and concrete options to handle this problem. He backed a significant research report on Muslim representation in film that got here out earlier this yr, after which introduced, in partnership with the nonprofit Pillars Fund, the Ford Basis, and USC’s Annenberg Institute, a fellowship for emerging directors and screenwriters who identify as Muslim. Advisory committee members embrace actors Mahershala Ali, Hasan Minhaj, and Ramy Youssef, and administrators Bassam Tariq, Jehane Noujaim, and Yann Demange.

Ahmed is properly positioned to stoke change. He’s revered in filmmaking circles and the Muslim group alike, even when he’s skewering extremism in Islam. (He says he’s nonetheless most widely known in the U.Ok. for his function as Omar, a would-be jihadist in the satirical 2010 film 4 Lions.) He has quietly mentored and supported younger artists. And his three-year-old manufacturing firm, Left Handed Movies, secured a first-look tv take care of Amazon Studios in January 2021, and has begun to pursue scripts that amplify Ahmed’s mission to develop representation whereas experimenting with completely different types of storytelling. He calls it “stretching tradition.” One such mission—of the 16 that Left Handed at the moment has in improvement—is Exit West, based mostly on the novel by Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, a couple of younger couple fleeing their unnamed residence nation when militants achieve energy. It tells “a refugee story, nevertheless it’s [also] a magical realist love story,” says Ahmed, who will star as Saeed, one of many protagonists. “That’s the sort of factor that I’m in, mixing genres, confounding individuals’s expectations.”


Ahmed, who is left-handed, says the title of his manufacturing firm captures his want to upend a system that rejects or miscasts individuals who don’t match in. “As a left-handed individual, you sort of have to write down in this unusual, upside-down manner,” he says. “You’re actually flipping the script.”

When Ahmed isn’t on set, he follows his personal strict routine. He’ll get up in London by 7:30 a.m. and do a little bit of breath work or meditation. He’ll then write till about midday—a screenplay or lyrics for an album. After a run or residence exercise with weights or resistance bands, he’ll eat lunch, then shift to calls and conferences, simply as of us in New York are logging on for the day. “Understanding, having a bathe, cooking, that’s the transition” from writing to his enterprise obligations, he says. “It burns off among the frenetic power.”

The routine not solely permits Ahmed to steadiness the inventive facets of his work with the business, nevertheless it’s additionally important to serving to him fight insomnia. “There are particular issues I have to do on daily basis to really feel balanced and good,” he says. When he has bother sleeping, it’s clear that he hasn’t been doing them: “I didn’t train. I didn’t meditate. I didn’t [write in my] journal.” He has different tips, too. Throughout a current keep in California, he tried going outdoors and getting pure gentle very first thing in the morning and at sundown, a tip he picked up from neurologist Andrew Huberman’s podcast, Huberman Lab. “I gotta say, it labored for me,” Ahmed says, hinting that California climate helped encourage the routine. “That’s not a really engaging prospect a lot of the yr in the U.Ok.”

” One advantage of being in London is you get a head begin. Whenever you’re on West Coast time, as quickly as you get up, your inbox is full.” [Photo: Christina Ebenezer; Groomer: Tara Hickman using Armani Beauty at Carol Hayes Management]Ahmed’s rituals lengthen to his crew at Left Handed, which consists of Allie Moore, a former AMC govt who joined the corporate in January as senior vice chairman and head of tv, and artistic govt Megha Kohli. All through the week, they set up blocks of time for several types of work and conferences. Inner blocks are devoted to brainstorming, reviewing present tasks, and speaking about potential new endeavors. Exterior blocks are for conferences with inventive and enterprise companions, together with fellowship backer Pillars Fund, or his brokers and public-relations groups. There are also particular person blocks—starting from 90 minutes to three hours—for studying and inventive work. Moore credit Ahmed with establishing the block system. “I want I’d finished it my entire profession,” she says. “It is actually useful as a result of it is simple, particularly in my place, to lose that inventive time.”

Ahmed hopes to create blocks for the crew to present him sincere suggestions—one thing many workers discover intimidating. In the summertime of 2021, Left Handed employed govt profession coach Drew Kugler to assist be sure the trio is having what Kugler calls “actual conversations.” Kugler, whose shoppers embrace Microsoft and Warner Bros., says he was instantly struck by Ahmed’s receptiveness to the method. Throughout an in-person assembly with Moore, Kohli, and Ahmed at a café in Brooklyn, Kugler famous that Ahmed made eye contact all through the assembly, and shifted his whole physique in his chair to face whoever was talking. “Have you learnt what number of CEOs of billion-dollar firms try this? Zero,” Kugler says. “He was there for us.”


Ahmed, like so many individuals who develop up as “different,” is an professional at code switching, adjusting his speech or mannerisms to mix into completely different areas. Born in En­gland to oldsters from Pakistan, he grew up in Wembley, a various group in northwest London. He’d undertake one persona as a scholar at Service provider Taylors’ College, a extremely aggressive boys’ secondary faculty, one other together with his household, and nonetheless one other with associates from residence. At Oxford College, the place he studied philosophy, politics, and economics, he honed his emcee abilities—as Riz MC—at a membership night time he began partly as an antidote to the college’s conventional formal dinners.

For all his skilled accomplishments—he gained an Emmy for his breakout function as Nasir Khan in The Evening Of and was nominated for one more for his visitor look as a surf teacher who will get Hannah pregnant on Ladies—Ahmed says he nonetheless felt just like the one character he hadn’t seen represented was a man like Riz Ahmed, a layered, sophisticated particular person who defies stereotypes and pigeonholes. That realization is a part of what led him to type Left Handed, and it has knowledgeable his activism.

In 2019, the expertise company CAA invited Ahmed, then a consumer (he’s now represented by WME), to talk at its annual Amplify convention, a management summit centered on range. Hollywood was going by a reckoning round remedy of girls and folks of coloration on display screen and behind it. Frances McDormand ended her Finest Actress acceptance speech on the 2018 Oscars by calling for “inclusion riders” to make sure range in film—however nobody was speaking about Muslims, says Esme Peach, Ahmed’s social affect adviser, who has been working straight with him since 2017 when he launched a fundraiser for Syrian refugees. “An epidemic of Islamophobia was sweeping the globe, and but the accountability second that the film business was having round representation didn’t appear to incorporate any reflection on the tropes that had been being perpetuated in relation to Muslims,” Peach says. Ahmed’s speech opened with an anecdote he has shared a number of occasions about being detained at London’s Luton Airport after coming back from the Berlin premiere of Street to Guantánamo, a docudrama that was Ahmed’s first function film. One of many interrogators requested Ahmed: Did you grow to be an actor to additional the Muslim battle? He went on to element different examples of Islamophobia all over the world and adverse portrayals of Muslims in media. He concluded by asking attendees to assist with analysis and funding to doc the scope of the issue. “We should be data-driven,” he mentioned.

The outcomes had been virtually rapid. The Ford Basis agreed to fund “Lacking and Maligned: The Actuality of Muslims in Standard International Motion pictures,” a research carried out by the College of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The report, launched in June 2021, validated Ahmed’s suspicions: Of the 200 movies launched in the U.S., the U.Ok., Australia, and New Zealand between 2017 and 2019, solely six featured a Muslim in a co-leading function, and solely a type of was feminine. Of the practically 9,000 complete talking elements, fewer than 2% had been Muslim. Of 41 lead and secondary Muslim characters, practically 90% spoke no English or did so with an accent. All this even though, in response to the Pew Analysis Heart, Muslims account for practically 1 / 4 of the world’s inhabitants.

Ahmed didn’t simply promote the findings in media interviews, he made a 13-minute video—which he shared on Twitter—highlighting the research, praising nuanced performances comparable to Mahershala Ali’s work in Moonlight, and calling out examples of dangerous portrayals. “You have got The Boys on Amazon, a present which I liked and binged,” he mentioned. “I can’t let you know how gutted I used to be when midway by that present Muslims flip up . . . to hijack a aircraft.” Along side the report’s backers and Pillars Fund, he unveiled the Pillars Artist Fellowship, which awards unrestricted $25,000 sums, plus mentorship {and professional} improvement, to Muslim screenwriters and administrators. The primary fellows shall be introduced in early 2022. “The speeches, the activism, the fellowship . . . they’re all genuine,” says Stacy L. Smith, founding father of USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, of Ahmed’s efforts. “He’s in this to create change.”

The refugee expertise is central to the plot of Exit West, a love story a couple of younger couple fleeing their war-torn homeland. Filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo’s AGBO manufacturing firm had secured the rights in 2018, and by 2020 that they had introduced Ahmed on to star in and govt produce. It didn’t take lengthy for Ahmed to exert his affect. Throughout script improvement, he requested key members of the crew, together with coproducers from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Greater Floor Productions (the previous president put Exit West on his record of prime books to learn in 2017), to take part in a three-day workshop in order that they may take heed to firsthand accounts of refugees. “It’s one factor to recommend that you simply try this,” says Tonia Davis, Greater Floor’s head of tv and film. “It’s one other factor totally to arrange it, notably for a bunch of busy Hollywood individuals. After which it’s one other degree to personally attend, and take part with vulnerability.”

Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios, says she constructed an in depth relationship with Ahmed when her firm was working to amass Sound of Steel, which it distributed in 2020, and final yr she signed a first-look TV take care of Left Handed, which implies Amazon Studios will get rights of first refusal to something Ahmed’s firm produces. When Ahmed criticized The Boys, an Amazon Studios unique, Salke wasn’t shocked. “We’re at all times pleased to develop and be taught,” she says. “I respect Riz’s standpoint. The work he’s doing on behalf of Muslim representation is a sport changer.” She says his largest problem as he strikes deeper into manufacturing could also be time administration. “The toughest factor for him, given how deeply he dives into issues that he cares about, is determining how he can try this when he’s just one bodily Riz,” she says.

“I didn’t grow to be an artist to enter enterprise,” says Ahmed. He longs for the day when he can refocus his consideration on performing, making music, possibly taking over one other comedic function. “My fantasy profession is to be a humorist—not that I’ve the expertise for it.” (He says that a lot of the inspiration for his rap music comes from satirists comparable to Invoice Hicks and Richard Pryor.) For now, although, he feels he should preserve stretching tradition, utilizing his visibility and credibility to combat bias in the leisure business and past. In his 2019 speech at CAA, he mirrored on the query the airport safety agent requested him: “Did I grow to be an actor to additional the Muslim battle? In the event you imply the battle to be seen, heard, and afforded dignity? Then, yeah, I did.”


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