Industry Panel Suggests Ways to Better Represent Muslims in Film and TV

Courtesy of the Muslim Public Affairs Council
Writers Guild Foundation and Muslim Public Affairs Council panel

"It's no secret that the industry has a knack for vilifying marginalized communities," said Sue Obeidi, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council's Hollywood Bureau.

An industry panel discussed ways to avoid Muslim stereotypes in film and TV while also offering suggestions to ensure more authentic representations of Islam and Muslims in Hollywood at a recent event presented by the Writers Guild Foundation and the Hollywood Bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

The MPAC's Hollywood Bureau consults with production companies on authentic portrayals of Muslims and connects companies with Muslim creatives in writers rooms to tell their own stories to ensure that the stories told on the screen are accurate.

The panel discussion, held Monday night at the WGAF/WGA headquarters in Los Angeles, included MPAC president Salam Al-Marayati, actor-writer Dan Milano (Robot Chicken, Greg the Bunny), creator/executive producer/writer Chris Keyser (Party of Five, The Last Tycoon, Tyrant), writer Sohrab Noshirvani (Dry River Road, Junkyard Dogs), producer Cherien Dabis (Empire, Quantico), and writer Y. Shireen Razack (Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments, Haven). Writer/producer Valerie C. Woods (Any Day Now, Soul Food) moderated the panel. 

"It's no secret that the industry has a knack for vilifying marginalized communities," said Sue Obeidi, director of the MPAC's Hollywood Bureau told The Hollywood Reporter. "However, we did notice that before Trump got into the White House, before he was even elected, representatives of the entertainment industry, television executives and creatives, reached out to us about creating Muslim characters, not your traditional 'bad-guy Arab villain Muslim,' but more authentic narratives.”

The Hollywood Bureau is currently consulting for Disney’s Aladdin (the upcoming live-action version), ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy,  Hulu’s The Looming Tower, NatGeo’s The State, Paramount/Amazon’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and Nickelodeon’s Glitch Techs.

The MPAC’s ultimate goal is to get more Muslim creatives involved in the corporate structure.

“I want to make sure that to us [MPAC's Hollywood Bureau], ultimate success is not having a Muslim TV network, but to have Muslims at the helm of a major network, studio and production company," said Obeidi. "In order to really make a difference in the narrative, we cannot afford to be burning daylight by preaching to the choir. Muslims, like all other members of vulnerable communities, need to be in decision-making roles at major mainstream TV networks, studios and production companies, as well as showrunners and executive producers.”

Obeidi is hopeful that there will be a Muslim lead on a television drama and sitcom within the next few years.

Nickelodeon's new animated series Glitch Techs will feature a multiethnic cast, including a Muslim-American female character who will wear a hijab on the show. Glitch Techs writer David Anaxagoras originally created the character for another program, Amazon's Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street, but viewers never saw the character because of the show's cancellation.

When developing Glitch Techs, the co-creators recognized the need to incorporate characters reflective of the viewing audience, whether they are background characters or main characters, so “someone somewhere [can look] for themselves on television," said Milano, who co-created the show with Eric Robles. The creators consulted with the MPAC to figure out how to accurately display an authenticity, even down to little behaviors.

“Even though we’re an animated show and they are trying to catch creatures, we want small things. We want to know that a stray hair came out of that hijab, and she had to tuck it behind her ear because that’s a human moment, that’s a practical moment, from everyday life,” said Milano.

Added Al-Marayati: “Five years ago and 10 years ago, we never thought we’d actually have an audience to talk to, but now, I think we should thank Donald Trump because we’re finally having a conversation, and it’s unfortunate that it had to take that to have that conversation, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers, so we welcome this opportunity.”