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On Thursday evening, an industry panel featuring writers, actors and practicing entertainment lawyers discussed ways in which Muslims and the Islamic faith have been represented through film and television, as well as offered ideas on how to ensure better and more authentic representation moving forward in the industry.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau, led by Sue Obeidi, works as a consulting firm to various television shows and feature films in advising production companies on how to create authentic portrayals of Muslim characters on the screen.
Along with consulting, MPAC works to connect Muslim screenwriters with industry decision makers through workshops, roundtables and networking events to create opportunities for the budding writers to tell their own stories.
The panel, held at the Writers Guild of America West headquarters, was organized by the Writers Guild Foundation in partnership with the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau and the Muslim Bar Association of Southern California. Panelists included entertainment lawyers Yasmine Abdel-Aal and Sumair Khan, writer/director Iram Parveen Bilal (Josh: Independence Through Unity), Wayfarer Entertainment’s Farhoud Meybodi (My Last Days), screenwriter Munis Rashid (S.W.A.T.) and actor Amir Talai (L.A. to Vegas). The evening’s discussion was moderated by civil litigator Sireen Sawaf.
“We’re a trusted resource. Lately, however, we’ve been more proactive in going to writers rooms and doing what we call ‘inclusion presentations’ and the reason we’re doing this is because in the last three years that President Trump ran for president and then became the president, we actually felt the industry reaching out more than ever and so we decided that we needed to be more proactive and so we have now an inclusion presentation that we take around and ask TV networks to have us present to them,” Sue Obeidi, director of the MPAC’s Hollywood bureau, told The Hollywood Reporter. “It gives us a chance to talk about the stereotypes that exist and to deconstruct them and to give them alternative content. They have been a great tool in creating a relationship and creating a solid avenue for change.”
MPAC’s consulting expertise has been used on television shows such as Amazon Prime’s Jack Ryan, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Showtime’s The Affair, as well as films such as Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Aladdin.
Obeidi hopes that more aspiring Muslim screenwriters are able to become better connected with industry executives through MPAC programs such as the panel held Friday evening.
“Tonight is about navigating the business side of the industry, which is really nice because we finally have a critical mass in Hollywood as Muslims and it wasn’t the case a few years ago,” she told THR. “What I hope comes out of it is that we connect people to executives and creatives because there will be a lot of screenwriters upstairs that want to be discovered or mentored.”
Rashid, who graduated from the American Film Institute in 2016 and is currently a staff writer on CBS’ S.W.A.T., shared how he is able to portray authentic characters without delving into stereotypes. “It’s tricky. One of the most important things I’ve learned just from being in the [writers’] room is you need to be open to the different perspectives. That’s part of the benefit of being in the room with multiple writers, that everybody has their own perspective on characters and the way they operate.” he said. “A lot of the stereotypes are broken just by having the different perspectives. If I’m the Muslim writer in the room and I feel like it’s going in a certain way and the Muslim character is moving into a certain stereotype, I have the responsibility to voice my opinion and hopefully the people who are higher up will listen. If everybody’s doing that and shaping the characters to their truth, then hopefully you’ll get a true representative on screen.”
Talai responded to questions on whether or not to take roles that seem overtly stereotypical. “Early on in my career, one of the first roles I played was one of the 9/11 terrorists. It was pretty one-dimensional,” Talai shared. “It’s important for us all to realize that every project we take part in becomes a part of the national conversation. Seventy-five percent of white Americans don’t have any friends who are people of color. That means that the only people those white people know are who they see on TV. We have a responsibility to show them a wide range. If I get asked to play a terrorist, I now think long and hard about it, especially after Trump. The answer would have been different five years ago than it is now. Now we have to be cognizant of what stories we’re putting out.”
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Taraji P. Henson