Malala Yousafzai used Variety’s Power of Women event, presented by Lifetime, to make the case for representation in Hollywood, specifically highlighting the fact that Muslim actors only make up 1% of popular television series leads.
“Abbott Elementary” creator Quinta Brunson presented Yousafzai with her Variety honor, calling her one of “the most influential advocates of our time.” Yousafzai, who remains the youngest Nobel Laureate in history, recently revealed the first slate of projects out of her production company Extracurricular. The outfit, which is headed by Yousafzai and her head of production Erika Kennair, struck a multi-year programming deal with Apple TV+ last year.
At the heart of her first projects is a rich diversity that reflects Yousafzai’s resolve to tell representative stories that haven’t always had a place in Hollywood.
“I learned that Asian people like me make up less than 4% of leads in Hollywood films. Muslims are 25% of the population, but only 1% of characters in popular TV series,” Yousafzai underscored at the Power of Women dinner.
Among her first projects are a feature documentary with A24 about South Korea’s matriarchal Haenyeo society of elderly fisherwomen, currently in production; a scripted series based on Asha Lemmie’s coming-of-age novel “Fifty Words for Rain,” about a woman’s search for acceptance in post-World War II Japan; and a feature film with “Don’t Look Up” director Adam McKay and his production company, Hyperobject, based on Elaine Hsieh Chou’s book “Disorientation” — a satire about a college student’s revealing dissertation about a young poet.
Yousafzai is also throwing her influence behind Riz Ahmed’s Pillars Artist Fellowship, which supports emerging Muslim directors and screenwriters. The program is timely, with Yousafzai having cited new data from a recent USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative during her speech.
“I know that the executives have passed on dozens of quality, equally amazing projects because they thought that the characters or their creators were too young, too Brown, too foreign, too poor,” she remarked. “Sometimes it feels like they’re saying we just don’t belong here.”
On Oct. 9, it will be 10 years since Yousafzai became, at 15, a survivor of a ruthless assassination attempt on a child by the Taliban. In 2012, the Afghanistan-headquartered group, which had slowly been stripping women of their civil liberties in the region, targeted Yousafzai for her father’s activism — at the time, he was operating the Khushal School for girls in Mingora.
The Taliban shot Yousafzai in the face while she was riding the bus home from school. She was flown to England for lifesaving emergency treatment and has lived there ever since, recently moving from her family’s home in Birmingham to London with her new husband, Asser Malik.
Speaking at Variety’s event, Yousafzai spoke about the formative experience at 11 years old that set her on a path toward activism, pushing to champion creative perspectives from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds in the entertainment industry.
“I know the tale of having a dream and being told to forget it,” Yousafzai said. “Today, I am a storyteller, activist and producer.”
Yousafzai, along with Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, Elizabeth Olsen, Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay, are honorees at this year’s Power of Women event in Los Angeles.