If this season's award shows are any indication, Hollywood's elite will no doubt slam Donald Trump's racism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim actions at the Oscars on Sunday, and we'll no doubt be whooping and cheering them on from our couches. But as a powerful op-ed by a queer Iraqi actor reminds us, Hollywood still needs to look in the mirror about its own complicity in stoking the flames of Islamophobia.
In an article for The Independent that went viral on Friday, Amrou Al Kadhi recounted his first acting job: as a 12-year-old, he was cast as the son of a terrorist in Steven Spielberg's Munich. He continued:
I’m now 26, and in my career, I’ve been sent nearing 30 scripts for which I’ve been asked to play terrorists on screen. Roles have varied from ones as meaty as “Suspicious Bearded Man on Tube” to “Muslim man who hides his bombs in a deceptive burka”.
When characters aren’t as explicitly linked to jihadi fundamentalism, most Arab roles I’ve read serve as antagonists to white heroes.
The problem Al Kadhi points out has been extremely well documented. Research from the University of Southern California has found that in American film and TV, only 28.3 percent of characters with spoken lines were people of color (despite being 40% of the overall U.S. population). When it comes to Arab representation specifically, Dr. Jack Shaheen—in his book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies People— found that in over 1,000 films depicting Arabs, only 12 had positive depictions of them.
In case you were counting, that comes out to 1.2%. What we usually get instead are films like American Sniper, which Al Kadhi called out in his piece.
But rather than simply lamenting the lack of personal and professional opportunities, Al Kadhi, who is also a writer and filmmaker, emphasized the real-world impact this lack of representation has on audiences.
Stories onscreen have the rare ability to arouse empathy for diverse characters in audiences across the world, so leaving out Arab and Muslim voices in such a context of global Islamophobia is particularly damaging…It is my genuine belief that if the TV and film industry had been more diligent in representing Arab characters – with all our humane, complex, intersectional three-dimensionality – xenophobia would not be as pandemic as it is today.
This is the crux of the issue: Great art has the ability to deepen our compassion and empathy. Hollywood's inability to depict Arabs in a thoughtful, three-dimensional way ultimately robs its audience of that connection. The argument isn’t that film could eradicate Islamophobia or xenophobia, but that centering Arab experiences could complicate and disrupt those phobias rather than reinforce them.
Al Kadhi ended with an impassioned plea for the Academy to recognize (that is, reward) Moonlight over La La Land, which is widely expected to win Best Picture.
I pray that La La Land doesn’t clean up at the Oscars (as at the BAFTAs). For this would be a sign that the industry [prioritizes] the celebration of itself first of all, self-indulgently rejoicing in its own nostalgic - and white – mythology.
Moonlight NEEDS to win Best Picture. Not only because it is a cinematic feat that is to La La Land what Frida Kahlo is to paint-by-numbers, but because it sends an urgent message. A message that we’re ready to empathise with any story, no matter how far away they are from us, and how much they defy our systemic misconceptions.
As insular and political as the industry is, these types of call-outs could be costly for actors (see: Constance Wu speaking out against Casey Affleck's Oscar nomination). But just before Hollywood gathers to celebrate itself and the power of cinema, Al-Kadhi reminds us that we would be wise to temper our applause.