Muslim Characters Had Speaking Roles in Less Than 2% of Top Recent Films, Study Finds

“The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded,” actor Riz Ahmed says

Sound of Metal Muslims in Film Riz Ahmed
Amazon Studios

Muslim characters were present in less than 10% of 200 of the most recent popular films, a new study found, and when their characters are given rare speaking roles, they’re often depicted as foreigners, dangerous or in other stereotypical lights.

The survey is the latest from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which selected 200 popular films released between 2017 and 2019 in the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand and found that less than 2% of more than 8,500 speaking characters in these movies were Muslim.

The study is also getting a boost from actor and Oscar nominee for “Sound of Metal” Riz Ahmed, who in addition to the data is joining with the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative as part of a coalition called The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion. And Ahmed will also sponsor a fellowship of $25,000 for Muslim artists in the U.S. and the U.K.

“The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded,” Ahmed said in a statement. “The data doesn’t lie. This study shows us the scale of the problem in popular film, and its cost is measured in lost potential and lost lives.”

The study also argues that of the representations of Muslim characters that are available, many are viewed as outsiders, as threatening or as subservient, particularly to white characters. One-third of the characters committed violence while half were victims or targets of violence in films. Characters are most likely to be shown with their articles of faith. Female Muslim characters are often secondary or presented only as romantic partners or family. And rarely do films depict Muslim characters in modern day or as people in English-speaking countries, with a majority only seen in the Middle East/North Africa, India, or Europe.

“More than half of the primary and secondary Muslim characters in these films were immigrants, migrants, or refugees, which along with other findings in the study consistently rendered Muslims as ‘foreign,’” Al-Baab Khan, one of the study authors, said in a statement. “Muslims live all over the world, but film audiences only see a narrow portrait of this community, rather than viewing Muslims as they are: business owners, friends and neighbors whose presence is part of modern life. By presenting Muslims in an abundance of storylines, audiences can see and resonate with the innumerable experiences of Muslims from all walks of life.”

The study also found that no animated movies depicted Muslim characters, and very few of the speaking characters are Muslim children. It’s unclear how many animated movies were analyzed as part of the study.

“Paired with the finding that only seven Muslim characters were children, popular movies send a strong message to children that Muslims do not belong and are not worthy of inclusion in storytelling,” one of the study’s authors, USC academic Stacy Smith, said. “Is this the lesson we want young viewers to learn about themselves or others: that if you are Muslim it is acceptable to be erased?”

The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion that was created in response to the study is led by the Pillars Fund, which will provide resources for Muslim creators and storytellers. And Ahmed and Left Hand Films will offer multiple fellowships of $25,000 as well as career development support to Muslim artists at the start of their career, as well as a multi-year program at first focused on those in film and TV, followed by creators in other areas such as literature, music and visual arts.

“Muslim communities are bursting with talent—it’s our duty and privilege to support these incredible artists and provide them the opportunity to tell their own stories,” Arij Mikati, Pillars Fund managing director of culture change, said in a statement. “Right now, a pathway to success doesn’t exist for many Muslim creatives. The Pillars Artist Fellowship addresses this by providing them the funds, connections, and high-support, high-challenge community needed to reach their greatest aspirations.”

“I know the industry has the imagination and the resources to fix this problem. Now it must show the will, and the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion can offer a practical roadmap for change,” Ahmed added. “The Fellowship also offers a meaningful way to intervene. Having a source of unrestricted funding for Muslim artists and storytellers will be game changing. Muslim communities in the US and UK are amongst the most economically disadvantaged, and yet currently there’s nothing else out there like the Pillars Artist Fellowship which really invests and believes in the talent pipeline. Had I not received a scholarship and also a private donation, I wouldn’t have been able to attend drama school.”

“Film and television provide a powerful lens through which we see and understand the cultures and communities around us and relate to the world at large,” Noorain Khan, director of the Office of the President for the Ford Foundation, said in a statement. “For too long, depictions of Muslims in entertainment have failed to match the richness and diversity of our lived experiences and we have felt the impact of these flattened portrayals firsthand. At Ford, we are proud to support the collective efforts of the Pillars Fund, Riz Ahmed, and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to clearly illuminate the extent of the misrepresentation and create a roadmap towards a more just future.”

Read the full study here.


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