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Why It’s Time for Hollywood to Recognize the Muslim Community’s Diversity (Guest Column)

The past five years have given MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau a renewed sense of hope. We’ve seen an unprecedented increase in Muslim characters and storylines on screen, even from major studios. When Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for supporting actor in 2017 for “Moonlight,” he became the first Muslim to ever do so. On Feb. 24, there’s a chance he will take home his second Oscar for “Green Book.” 2017 also marked a milestone when two Muslim presenters were featured in the broadcast: Dave Chappelle and Kumail Nanjiani. Nanjiani returned this year to co-present the Oscar nominations with Tracee Ellis Ross.

As someone who has long watched the Oscars, the sight of three stars who shared my faith onstage on Hollywood’s biggest night was something that I had always hoped for and knew in my heart was possible. It is a moment that I carry with me as I think about the road ahead.

But the very recent inclusion of American Muslims doesn’t erase the years of vilification we have endured in Hollywood. From “The Sheik” in 1921 to any number of terrorist villains from the ’80s through the present,, the portrayal of Muslims in general has been caricature at best and demonizing at worst. And those portrayals have real world impact. They affect how we are seen by others, and even how we see ourselves.

Like most American teen girls in the 1980s, I loved Michael J. Fox, especially as Marty McFly in Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future.” In a pivotal scene, Doc Brown and Marty are in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall when a van full of angry Libyans appears, shooting at our heroes and yelling in Arabic as they try to gun down Doc. Growing up in an Arabic-speaking household, I knew the language and thought, “Hey, they’re speaking the same language as my family!” It was only later that I understood just how derogatory that scene was, and it dawned on me that everyone else in that theater probably viewed Muslims in general as presumed enemies because of these portrayals on-screen.

Today I’m encouraged by the successes of “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” which proved that movies with diverse casts and perspectives can do well at the box office. Simply put, inclusion is great business. But these blockbusters could not have been so successful without broad based appeal. Moviegoers from outside the African-American or Asian communities saw these movies because they were compelling stories that were beautifully told.

Nanjiani’s “The Big Sick” resonated with audiences, performed well at the box office, and received an Oscar nomination for screenplay. More recently, director Lena Khan realized success with her film “The Tiger Hunter.” Khan is enormously talented and driven, and her hard work is finally being recognized by the industry. She is currently working on Disney’s “Flora and Ulysses.”

And there is more Muslim talent on the horizon. Writer-director Nijla Mu’min received praise for “Jinn,” a thoughtful story about a young black Muslim girl. Given that black Muslims actually make up the majority of Muslims in America, this is an important viewpoint to see on screen. Up-and-comers Minhal Baig, Bassam Tariq and Musa Syeed had projects premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which had more entries by people of color than ever before.

While starring roles and storylines for Muslims are important, sometimes it’s the small moments on film that make the biggest impact. Like the terrorists in “Back to the Future,” a momentary portrayal can create a lasting impression. To that end, some recent films have broken new ground by showing Muslims as ordinary people. In Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor,” as well as Marvel’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” we see supporting and incidental characters who wear hijab. And we will soon see Navid Negahban as the sultan in Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” (a film that MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau was proud to consult on). A Muslim playing a Muslim character that is a positive, loveable and kind — that’s the kind of progress we need.

As I watch the 2019 Oscars, I will be reflecting on how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go. For every positive step forward, there is still another stereotype or trope to address, but at MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau we will continue to work to bring our community even beyond equity and inclusion to appreciation and respect. We congratulate all of this year’s nominees and look forward to a future that authentically includes us all.

Sue Obeidi is the director of MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau, which consults on TV and film projects and connects American Muslim talent to decision-makers — both on the creative and business sides of the entertainment industry. http://www.mpachollywoodbureau.org

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