3 Things Muslims Can Do to Change the Narrative in Hollywood (Guest Column)

Mahershala Ali Wins 89th Annual Academy Awards - Getty - H 2017
Kevin Winter/Getty

Mahershala Ali Wins 89th Annual Academy Awards - Getty - H 2017

Sue Obeidi, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council's Hollywood Bureau, addresses the critical need for Muslims in the business to take the lead in changing the perception of Islam and Muslims in America, especially now as the Trump administration continues to marginalize her community.

The entertainment industry is probably the most misunderstood industry by the Muslim community, as it has a reputation of being out of our reach. By no means is this true. The problem is not that it is out of reach, but rather that the most lucrative projects that come out of the industry are created by white men. So it is not a Muslim problem, but a problem for all content creators who are not white, male and straight. While all marginalized groups, for the most part, are part of the same struggle, Muslims have a lot of catching up to do, and more “undoing” to do. The current political climate finds us in an uphill battle, with hate crimes on the rise toward vulnerable communities and the current administration seeking ways to further marginalize us, so we have a lot riding on this. But the onus to change these narratives does not fall solely on the industry’s shoulders.

While the industry has a long way to go in the area of inclusion and representation, we saw at last year’s Emmy and this year’s Academy Awards that things are changing. Growing up watching all the awards shows, I hoped that one day Muslims would be recognized for their contributions in Hollywood. Fast forward a few years, and this is beginning to happen. It was a hopeful year for Muslims at the Oscars, as two of us (Mahershala Ali and Asghar Farhadi) were honored, as was The White Helmets, a documentary about Muslims saving the lives of others in a war zone.

So how can we increasingly make an impact and be in positions that will help change the dominant narrative about Islam and Muslims in film and TV?

First, we must make sure that we have the skills to do the work, and we need to keep refining them.

This is true whether we are behind the camera or in front of it. We need to perfect our craft. Competition is fierce in this industry, so if we get an opportunity to do the work, we’d better be ready because there are few second chances — and information spreads like wildfire. Our work has to speak for itself. We need to find mentors and work with them to sharpen our skills and talents. In acceptance speeches, the winners often mention those who mentored them; we also need to remember to pay that forward when we are in a position of influence.

Second, let’s be strategic about our careers.

This mainly applies to Muslim screenwriters, directors and producers. One of us may have the next Schindler’s List or Titanic, but Steven Spielberg did not roll out of bed and into Schindler’s List. Before he won the Oscar for that incredible film, he made Duel (one of my favorite Spielberg films), Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and several others in between. When meeting Muslims in the industry, I find that most have a passion project about growing up Muslim or how great Islam is (which I believe too) and wonder why their inspiring drama or funny sitcom is not going anywhere. Remember that the entertainment industry is a business just like any other, and one needs to know where the market is at all times. If you have the talent, the opportunity to tell your own story will ultimately present itself, and creators must seize the moment when it does. But until then, let’s be strategic and tactical with our work. We don’t want to make our passion project and have it go nowhere because the world wasn’t really ready for it. An epic film about the birth of Islam, The Message, directed by the late Moustapha Akkad and starring Anthony Quinn, was released in the late 1970s to resounding success — in the Middle East. It was before its time. If a film about the birth of Islam featuring a major star were to be released now, it would probably be a blockbuster. Timing is everything.

Third, believe that you belong in the industry.

If you are in the industry for fame and fortune, then the ideas here may not all resonate with you. If you are striving for better representation of Islam and Muslims, then you need to help shift the paradigm of inclusion — meaning that we do belong in this industry, we are not outsiders, and we should not be made to feel as if someone is doing us a favor in hiring us. So lean in. Lean all the way in. If you are in the writers room, you need to lobby to get more Muslims into that room. And as in any other business, you must make a name for yourself before you can get what you want. Don’t work in a vacuum. Get out of your comfort zone to meet and get noticed by the right people. Don’t be the best kept secret. Be the next sensation. Make sure your voice is heard by people who have the influence to elevate it. Not everyone has influence in this industry, so run with those who can make a difference for you. Then when you are in a position of strength, elevate someone else’s voice.

There is a fallacy in our community that the entertainment industry is owned by the Jewish community and there is no way that Muslims can ever make a difference in Hollywood; that one group has the keys to the kingdom and will always keep us off the playing field. It isn’t true. And American Jews were not handed anything on a silver platter when they immigrated to the United States. They were vilified, marginalized and targeted by people similar to those running our country now. The Jewish community didn’t have many people advocating for them, but they banded together to create the industry. Even then they were victims of stereotypes and negative storylines that still follow them today, and while there is no "Jewish" travel ban, their synagogues, schools and centers are being targeted and vandalized all over the world, as are our mosques. Humanity is still a work in progress.

Changing the narratives about Islam and Muslims has to start with us. We cannot wait for white male executives to wake up one day and decide that they are going to make the change for us. We have to help the industry see that accurate, humanizing and authentic portrayals of Muslims and all vulnerable communities is actually good business. We are a wonderful community with incredible stories to tell. Let’s collectively make an impact to ensure those stories see the light of day.