Riz Ahmed still shakes his head at the way Muslims are portrayed onscreen.
“The game right now is messed up. The game right now is rigged,” Ahmed said in a new interview with news outlet Muslim. “Muslims are either not on screen or they are [and] they’re the bad guys. They’re perpetrators or victims of violence. We’re either invisible or we’re villainized, cause the stories we tell about our community affect the laws that get passed, the people that get attacked, the people that get invaded.”
Watching a clip form the 2014, Clint Eastwood-directed blockbuster film American Sniper, in which star Bradley Cooper shoots a Muslim child during the Iraq War, Ahmed shook his head.
“This is so f***** up,” he said. “It’s actually hard to watch this and not get angry … It’s crazy to think that, like, how many people had to say this was OK for this to be made. I don’t think we even have the time to fully explain how f***** up that clip is on so many levels. It’s just super racist.”
He pointed out that most of the Muslim people featured were terrorists.
“[We’re] gonna look back on that and look at it with the same cringe as we look at, you know, films that had blackface in them. Or films with, like, you know, cowboys and Indians, [where] the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” said Ahmed, who’s been outspoken about the importance of diversity and his experiences with racism. “Really, that’s what you’re saying, the only good Muslim is a dead one. This stuff’s so dangerous, because it enables the invasion of countries. It enables hate crimes. It enables discriminatory and racist laws being passed.”
He pronounced such style of film “wack, outdated, racist” and said such carelessness “costs lives.”
The Rogue One: A Star Wars Story actor implored filmmakers to show a Muslim community that’s more diverse, when it comes to race, geography, gender, sexuality and abilities. In June, Ahmed and his film company, Left Handed Films, partnered with the University of Southern California’s Inclusion Initiative and others to address the problem of underrepresentation through grants and mentorships to Muslim filmmakers. This followed the university’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism’s report that, of the top-grossing movies from 2017-2019, just 10 percent had any type of Muslim character, while fewer than 2 percent of those characters had dialogue. In real life, Muslims comprise nearly a quarter of the world’s population.
Ahmed also co-wrote and starred in the new movie Mogul Mowgli, about a British Pakistani rapper, which is a background strikingly similar to Ahmed’s own. (He was born in Britain to a Pakistani family and has performed as a musician.) The character’s name is actually Zaheer, but he goes by Zed, and that’s also a situation familiar to the man who played him. Ahmed’s first name is actually Rizwan.
“Zaheer has changed his name to Zed and the question is, is that a choice he made or is that something he was forced to do, because [he wanted] to fit in, because people couldn’t pronounce his name,” Ahmed explained. “And I sometimes ask myself that question. I have kind of censored my full name, and on some level, I wonder whether it’s just got too much weight and too much history.”
On that subject, Ahmed had clearly made a decision.
“One thing I’ll say is, after this film, I introduce myself as Rizwan,” he said.