New Riz Ahmed-Backed USC Study on Muslims in Popular Movies Tells a Troubling Tale

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

A groundbreaking report, titled “Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies,” was released today by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, with support from Academy Award-nominated actor Riz Ahmed, the Ford Foundation and Pillars Fund. A quantitative and qualitative investigation into Muslim representation in popular film, the study’s findings are devastating, but not entirely shocking.

Although Muslims are the fastest growing and most racially and ethnically diverse religious community in the world, the report details just how marginalized Muslim characters are in popular movies, either entirely absent or burdened with dangerous stereotypes that can lead to real-world consequences, both physical and psychological. The statistics tell a worryingly dismal tale.

More from IndieWire

“I think we all knew it would be bad, but we didn’t know just how bad,” said Ahmed of the study which reveals that, out of a total of 8,965 speaking characters identified across 200 top-grossing films released between 2017 and 2019, from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, just 1.6 percent were Muslim. Even worse, no Muslim characters were in the 23 animated movies across the full sample.

“That’s devastating,” Ahmed added. “Then also to see the way in which Muslims are depicted in relation to violence. Over 30 percent of Muslim characters are perpetrators of violence. Over 50 percent are victims of violence. As we know from studies that have been conducted, that has a real-world impact. What you end up with is people being killed, countries being invaded, discriminatory laws being passed. But to see it all in front of you in black and white is shocking.”

The four regions selected for the study are primarily English-speaking, each contending with its own immigration dilemma, taking action and implementing policy that is, for all intents and purposes, influenced by incomplete portrayals of Muslim characters who tend to be overwhelmingly male (76.4 percent), heterosexual (99 percent), non-disabled (99 percent), and from the Middle East (66.7 percent), stereotyped as outsiders, threatening, or subservient, particularly to white characters, in stories set in the past (more than half).

In the quantitative analysis, every speaking character identified across the sample of movies, was assessed for a variety of demographic and social factors (gender, race/ethnicity, age, LGBTQ identification, disability). Each speaking character’s Muslim identity was determined by using a set of indicators that included verbal (direct statements, other characters’ comments) and non-verbal cues (apparel, setting, artifacts).

Meanwhile, the qualitative analysis examined specific stereotypes and aspects of Muslim portrayals.

The study follows and builds on previous USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative inquiries concerning other marginalized groups. Each stirred up conversation, but, according to Dr. Stacy L. Smith, who spearhead’s the initiative, forward-moving action has been incremental, at best.

“The top people aren’t taking it seriously, even though we’re talking about lost lives,” Smith said. “There’s no urgency and this is critical. Hollywood wants us to believe this is an implicit bias problem. At the top, there are explicit biases in the choices that people are making, and the nomenclature is one of exclusion. We’ve done too many qualitative interviews to be able to know that the hegemonic forces at work link what makes money to the exclusion of particular groups. So if we want to see change it has to come from the top, and that’s where we haven’t seen movement.(As of a September 2020 report, 91 percent of Hollywood studio chiefs are white and 82 percent are male.)

The study indicates that, while Donald Trump’s Islamophobia-laced ascension certainly encouraged industry insiders to more strongly champion varied representations of Muslims, their efforts have yet to translate to consistently accessible, layered narratives, except for a tiny few exceptions, notably on television, like Hulu’s “Ramy.” So Hollywood’s sudden interest in the Muslim experience doesn’t resolve the matter, even if executives and critics may have convinced themselves that it does.

“We can’t just point to a couple of prominent success stories whilst ignoring the structural prejudice within our industry and in our society, overall,” Ahmed said.

For years, Arabs or Muslims have served as stock terrorist villains in Hollywood films, whether reality-based or overt caricatures, replacing Native Americans and Soviet Union/Russian menaces (and their allies). The industry’s regurgitation of vapid Muslim narratives is perplexing because it leaves a deep well of narrative potential untapped, depriving both itself and its audience of invigorating storytelling. All Arabs are not Muslims, and all Muslims are not Arabs.

Even more unfortunate is the unmistakable absence of well-rounded representation of women Muslims who are often misrepresented as faceless victims stripped of agency.

The similar absence of Muslims behind the camera, as producers, directors, writers, and the like, does not help nurture a film culture amenable to telling more and stronger Muslim stories, let alone recognizing the problems of those that already exist.

“The lack of representation is emblematic of people’s sentiments, as in the thought of Muslim bodies being collateral, the thought of Muslim bodies being associated with sociopolitical violence,” said Noorain Khan, director of the Office of the President for the Ford Foundation. “Omission begets omission, and I think the reason people don’t care is the fact that people have internalized these deficiencies for decades. The research speaks to, historically, Muslim people being contextualized from the past. So this is why we’ve got to do something. It’s just a cycle.”

To address the study’s findings, the coalition of partners have created what they call “The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion,” which includes short, medium, and long-term solutions for change, and a suite of practical resources and contacts, targeting all areas of industry, from schools to media companies.

“What the data is really showing is that the dehumanization of Muslims has actually worked and it’s worked quite well because we’re such an afterthought,” said Kashif Shaikh, Pillars Fund Co-Founder and President. “The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion offers a direct response by providing a broad set of recommendations for film industry professionals. I’ve been incredibly proud to be a part of this collaborative because it’s not just talking the talk. It’s walking the walk as well. I think with someone with Riz’s platform and his fame, to be able to be so brazen and really put himself out there, I think, is also unprecedented.”

In addition, Pillars Fund, in partnership with Ahmed and his Left Handed Films are announcing a new fellowship that seeks to create opportunities for Muslim storytellers. The Pillars Artist Fellowship will focus on Muslim artists in the U.S. and U.K. at the early stage of their careers, offering multiple selected fellows an unrestricted award of $25,000 and career development support.

Designed as a multi-year program, the fellowship’s pilot year will focus on directors and screenwriters. It will eventually expand to cover other disciplines, including literature, music, and visual arts. Pillars Artist Fellows will receive a curriculum of tailored professional development resources including workshops delivered by industry experts, fireside chats from the high-profile advisory committee, and proactive one-on-one mentorship.

The study and response to its findings are the coalition’s opening salvo, and they acknowledge that there’s much more work to be done to approach parity. “What I love about this collaborative effort is we’ve given it to the gatekeepers, and we’re saying, this is so easy, because the work has been done for you, and all they have to do is say ‘yes’ and follow the bullet points,” Smith said. “It’s that straightforward.”

Consequently, echoing Dr. Smith’s thoughts, Ahmed can only be optimistic about what the future holds.

“I think there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, if action is taken,” he said. “It’s as simple as saying, ‘we’re not going to tell those racist stories anymore. We’re not going to dehumanize and demonize Muslims and only depict them as two-dimensional villains. We’re not going to erase them anymore’. If we don’t, those complicit in these stories are going to be judged by history. We’re going to look back at this era with the same sadness and shame that we look upon minstrelsy of days gone by. So I think there’s hope because people are starting to become more aware. So when we do another study in a couple of years, we can say, ‘Guess what? Some things have changed’.”

Read the full report right here, and for more information on the fellowship, head right here.

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.