For many Muslims around the world, British-Pakistani heartthrob Riz Ahmed is a trailblazer without comparison. Whether it’s starring in our favorite films such as Sound Of Metal, Venom, or Star Wars: Rogue One – it’s no doubt that Riz is one of the most prominent Muslim actors to represent his faith and call out racial disparities in film.
Muslim or not, you have most likely seen or heard of Riz Ahmed. His viral speech in 2017 to the British House of Commons on diversity on screen was screened across everyone’s social media feeds. The speech even led to the creation of the Riz Test, which measures if Muslims are properly being portrayed in film and TV – but he doesn’t stop there.
Aside from shattering stereotypes by being a visible Muslim on screen, Riz Ahmed is becoming a pillar in guiding our community through navigating misrepresentation of Muslims in Hollywood and in film. He already shattered glass ceilings by becoming the first Muslim to be Oscar-nominated in the Best Actor category for his work in Sound of Metal.
The actor is now telling his own story, and the stories of other Muslims through the power of his own production company Left Handed Films; the first feature film of the production company being Mogul Mowgli, a story that follows a British-Pakistani rapper in the UK battling with an autoimmune disease.
Producing and starring in Mogul Mowgli is just one pit-stop for Riz Ahmed as he chases his ultimate mission to shake things up in Hollywood. “The game is rigged for the Muslim community,” he shares. “It’s time to fix Muslim representation [in film] as it is a matter of life and death. Muslims are either not on screen, or when they are, they are the bad guys.“
We had the pleasure of interviewing the Oscar-nominated actor to hear more of his thoughts on Muslim representation, how the commercial film industry is beginning to shift, and about the impact of his film Mogul Mowgli.
Thank you so much for taking part in this. I’m so glad to have you here.
RIZ AHMED: Thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time and making space for me.
Of course. You have developed a stellar record and broken glass ceilings for Muslim representation. What is your ultimate goal?
RIZ AHMED: The game right now is messed up; it’s rigged. Muslims are either not on screen or when they are, they are the bad guys. Muslims are seen as the perpetrators or victims of violence – we are either invisible or villainized. So we need to change that up. We need to show a diverse Muslim community, racially and geographically.
Muslims made up under 2% of all acting roles in the top 200 films of the last few years. And you have to remember, Muslims are a quarter of the world’s population. So my goal is to bridge that gap.
Can you tell us a bit more about why Muslim representation is important to you?
RIZ AHMED: Fixing the problem of Muslim misrepresentation on screen is actually a matter of life and death. It’s about saving and changing lives. I mean, the stories that we tell about our community, they affect the laws that get passed. They affect the people that are attacked or countries that get invaded.
When you put out a story that [the Muslim] community is not human, or they’re worth less than [others] or that they’re all evil, when they are dangerous, they’re a threat. They are now enabling real world actions that really impact lives in a negative way. So that’s why I’d say it’s a really important thing for us all to really kind of join hands around and try and improve.
Does your experience as a Muslim in the UK differ from your experience in the US?
RIZ AHMED: I would say that the US and UK Muslim community is quite different, in lots of ways. But one thing that I see across the board is resilience and creativity in the face of obstacles.
It is interesting, because the post-9/11 era wasn’t restricted to one country. In the post-9/11 era, there are real issues and challenges that Muslims face, but I feel personally quite privileged in having visited communities in all these countries.
I just think that we could all learn so much from each other, you know, everywhere, what I see is ingenuity, creativity, people taking those barriers as inspiration, you know, taking that prejudice and allowing it to fuel them to achieve, you know, pressure makes diamonds and I think over the last 20 years, we’ve grown a lot of diamonds in our communities, I think we’re seeing the the fruits of that now.
I would love for you to go touch upon your film Mogul Mowgli and how that film is deconstructing that narrative.
RIZ AHMED: Mogul Mowgli is a kind of movie that you don’t really see, you know. I kind of got to a point in my career, where I was like, You can play someone from outer space, or you can play all these different characters, but the one character that I don’t see on screen is someone like you. So actually, stretching culture means putting us in our experiences on screen. And it’s a story about a character very much like me – you know, ambitious, creative. A rapper, and he’s trying to make it against all odds. But actually, we realize, as much as he claims to be representing his people back home, how often does he see them? Is he rapping for his people? Is he trying to run away from his people? Is he trying to find out who he is through the approval of others? And so it’s a story about this rapper Zed, who suddenly, on the verge of blowing up, is struck down by a mysterious illness, and he’s forced to face the things he’s been running away from, his deen, his demons, his ancestral trauma, his home, his family, you know.
I always say that the barriers can sometimes be the inspiration, and I think home can be like that, because home inspires us sometimes to make our work. But it can also sometimes feel a bit claustrophobic. So he’s stuck back at one place he’s been trying to run away from and forced to face himself. And I think that’s a story that a lot of people can relate to, that love-hate family: You can’t live with them, you can’t live without them.
So what do you feel is a conflict theme that a lot of Muslim Americans or Muslims in general can relate to in the diaspora?
RIZ AHMED: Well, I guess one of the big questions of Mogul Mowgli is where do I belong? And in my mind, often people with hyphenated identities – we don’t fit neatly into any one box. So we live in a kind of no man’s land. I think that no man’s land can be a bit of a lonely place to be, a confusing place to be, but hopefully what I want to do – and what you’re doing with your work – is to make that no man’s land a place that we can live. Make it a place for us, a place full of possibilities and potential.
Finally, as is the tradition for Muslim feature stars – What does being Muslim mean to you?
RIZ AHMED: To me, being Muslim means being grateful every day.
With his gratitude, Riz Ahmed has partnered with the Pillars Fund to launch a grant for Muslim filmmakers called the Pillars Art Fellowship. Ahmed aims to provide mentorship amongst other Muslim change makers such as Hasan Minhaj, Ramy Youssef, Lena Khan, and many more. You can find details on the initiative here.
Head over to Muslim’s official YouTube channel to watch Riz Ahmed react to movie scenes, and see if they pass the litmus test on accurate Muslim representation.