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Muslims in Hollywood: Making the Moment a Movement (Guest Blog)

A recent “Green Book” apology, in an odd way, represents progress

By now, most in the industry will have heard about “Green Book” screenwriter Nick Vallelonga’s tweet and its subsequent retraction. Vallelonga apologized for a 2015 tweet in which he shared the false narrative that American Muslims were seen cheering on 9/11, a claim that has been debunked repeatedly.

Just a few years ago, there would have been no apology; there would have been no public shaming for perpetuating an Islamophobic urban legend. But Hollywood seems to be moving in a new direction. As belated as Vallelonga’s apology was, in an odd way, it represents progress.

Watching the 76th annual Golden Globes last week reinforced a feeling that the current state of the industry is not just a Hollywood moment, but an actual movement towards more diversity. From the red carpet arrivals to the awards themselves, we saw the representation of communities that just a few short years ago were mostly invisible.

In 2017, we were so proud to see Mahershala Ali (pictured) become the first American Muslim to win an Oscar (for “Moonlight”), and a week ago, he became a two-time Golden Globe winner for “Green Book.” Not to mention this past Sunday night’s win at the Critic’s Choice Awards. We have no doubt that Ali’s name will be called when the Oscar nominees are announced on Jan. 22nd.

Here at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)’s Hollywood Bureau, we want to make sure that this movement includes more American Muslim creatives and we continue moving the industry in a more inclusive direction.

The last three years have seen an influx of Muslim talent — both in front of and behind the camera — at major network and film studios, leading to more authentic characters and portrayals of our experience. Legendary show runner Dick Wolf’s new drama FBI features a Muslim lead character, portrayed by Muslim actor, Zeeko Zaki.

Comedian Hasan Minaj’s meteoric rise — from “The Daily Show” to his Netflix special to his acclaimed new series “Patriot Act” — has shown an appetite for perspectives not traditionally seen on television, including those of a son of Indian Muslim immigrants.

After years of lobbying by Azita Ghanizada’s MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition (MAAC), SAG-AFTRA now has a MENA (Middle East and North African) category under its producers’ theatrical contract, the first new diversity category in 37 years. Even a mainstream show like The CW’s “Roswell,” which premiered this week, has a Muslim woman, Carina Adly Mackenzie, taking the helm as showrunner.

I believe that this current trend towards diversity and inclusion is not a fleeting moment but a movement, as it has been for other underrepresented communities. It would be easy to see any success that we’ve had as a reaction to our current political climate, but that would make our community the outlier amongst other underrepresented groups that now are more of a mainstay in media. The blockbuster success of shows like “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” and movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Black Panther,” have proven that diverse casts and cultural perspectives do not relegate a project to niche status — they can actually add up to ratings and box office gold.

Audiences are hungry for stories that reflect their communities. Despite what some will still say, even white viewers are tired of seeing the same old characters and stories, whether they look like them or not. The industry must continue to provide opportunities for diverse voices (including Muslim voices) to be heard. The previously mentioned success stories illustrate how large the current audiences are for this content, and those audiences will only grow as the demographics of this nation become less and less homogeneous. In short, diverse content is simply good business.

At MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau, we’re making sure that Muslim content creators can hone their craft with our screenwriter labs, but for this to be a movement, the industry must provide opportunities for their voices to be heard. There is a plethora of great content from Muslim creators that is finally being produced, such as Maysoon Zayed’s “Can Can” being optioned by ABC, and Farhan Arshad’s “Amerikhans,” which will be developed by CBS and produced by Imagine Entertainment.

While there have been great strides in representation, of the myriad diversity studies focused on the entertainment industry, very few — if any — of those have focused specifically on Muslims. We don’t need hard numbers to know how vilified Muslims have been since the inception of the industry, but we do need studies to better understand where we are now. As we move forward in this moment, we need to know where we are starting from.

The film industry creates art and entertainment, but it is still governed by the basic economic law of supply and demand. The world is shifting and we are at a tipping point where what has always worked in the past will not continue to be viable. As demand continues to grow for diverse and inclusive content, industry decision makers will have no choice but to adapt and provide what viewers are asking for.

I personally have no illusions that this will happen overnight, as change is always a process, not a destination. But when we reach a point of true inclusion for Muslims in Hollywood, it will have been worth the work and challenges.

As director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council's Hollywood Bureau, Sue Obeidi works with studio executives, producers, directors, and writers to create authentic, accurate and fair portrayals of Islam and of Muslims in film, television, and on digital platforms. Her goal, and that of the Hollywood Bureau, is to help the entertainment industry tell better stories about Islam and Muslims, a need that is now more pressing than ever. The Hollywood Bureau's consulting credits include film and TV projects with Participant Media, CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, Showtime, FX, Hulu, Super Deluxe Television, and Nat Geo.