For American Muslims and other marginalized communities, the past four years have been some of the most trying in recent memory. While Hollywood has historically portrayed Muslims as the “bad guys” in TV and film, we had never before experienced the overt demonization of Muslims emanating directly from the most powerful and influential office in the world. The election of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has brought comfort to many in our community that the White House will once again be welcoming to all Americans, and it brings a sigh of relief to people of conscience across the globe. But make no mistake, the election of Biden and Harris is not a panacea. Systemic racism, underrepresentation and marginalization will continue to be big issues in Hollywood and beyond for the foreseeable future. The struggle for an equal and inclusive America will continue.
But, we’ve made gains since 2016. We’ve seen, for example, new television Muslim characters added to long-running series like ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and the CW’s DC Legends of Tomorrow. This year NBC made history with Transplant by casting, for the first time, a Muslim actor, Hamza Haq, to play a Muslim as the series lead character. We’ve also seen Black Muslim narratives breakthrough with Nijla Mu’min’s Jinn and Lena Waithe’s The Chi. And we’ve seen the first American Muslim LGBTQ rom-com in Mike Mosallam’s Breaking Fast. Nine years ago, Mosallam created and produced the first Muslim reality show in TLC’s All-American Muslim. It lasted only one season because the far-right launched a campaign against the series, claiming that it was “favorable propaganda for Muslims.” If All-American Muslim were to have been greenlit today, it might have had a different fate.
Ultimately, audiences want new, bold and emotional stories with a unique point of view, and Muslim creatives have these stories to tell. So, as we look forward to 2021, Muslim creators have an opportunity. The historical lack of representation of our communities means that there is a wellspring of material waiting to get out into the world, the previous examples being the very tip of the iceberg.
Obstacles to better Muslim narratives will, unfortunately, remain. The rise of the far-right, for example, will not simply disappear on Jan. 20, 2021. Joe Biden received the largest popular vote count in history. But soon-to-be former President Donald Trump received the second-most votes of any person running for president. The high turnout for the incumbent shows that we are still a deeply divided, and deeply racist country.
The question that will be inevitably asked of Muslim creators (and all BIPOC creators) is: “How will you reach these people?!” The job of storytellers and activists is not to constantly justify their own humanity in the hopes that we will move someone out of bigotry. Nor should every creator from an underrepresented community be required to tell the story of their experience. That is too big an ask to place on anyone. Most storytellers are storytellers by vocation and advocates out of necessity.
That is why, for years, MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau has been working to change the narratives of Muslims in Hollywood, to undo decades of damage. The irony of the Trump years is that they marked a new era for Muslims in Hollywood. The past four years ushered in more curiosity and openness by the industry: Muslim creatives were sought out for their content and input to help Hollywood “get it right.” So, as we head into this new era for our nation, Hollywood must continue to lift up the work of Muslims and other communities throughout the industry to ensure that the gains made in the last four years don’t fall victim to complacency. And let’s continue to bring more stories and authentic portrayals to the screen, because there are so many stories we have yet to tell.
We cannot count on winning every heart and mind, but with warm, fun and authentic stories, we can spark curiosity in hearts that otherwise might be closed. At this moment in our nation’s history, that might go a long way.
Sue Obeidi is the director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s (MPAC) Hollywood Bureau.
Sami Khan is a screenwriter and Oscar-nominated filmmaker. He is currently a consulting producer and writer on NBC’s Transplant.