Riz Ahmed, the star of Four Lions (2010), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) and the mega-hit Star Wars prequel Rogue One (2016), is an excellent actor. He also wrote a powerful, hard-hitting essay for the Guardian last year, called ‘Typecast as a terrorist’, which was a credible and sharp attack on the limited range of roles Asian actors are often offered – ‘minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner’. Ahmed offered an alternative vision of the casting process, ‘where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave.’
Ahmed is right. In the TV and film industry, contemporary drama often fails to transcend race and identity politics. Which is why the annual diversity lecture, which Ahmed gave in parliament last week, was so disappointing.
He warned that the lack of diversity on screen, the absence of representations of ethnic minorities, could lead to an increase in people being drawn to extremist organisations like ISIS. To counter this, he proposed the imposition of state-backed quotas on Britain’s creative industries, arguing that since approximately 13 per cent of the populace are non-white, the British media must reflect and represent this reality.
Ahmed’s argument consisted of three main points. First, he argued that without positive images of Muslims on TV and in film, Muslims will lack the confidence to engage as active citizens in the UK, and turn instead to the images of Muslims in ISIS’s homemade action videos of ritual beheadings and other atrocities. The implication here is that Muslims are weak-willed and narcissistic.
Second, he called for British TV and film to cut back on the nostalgia-drenched costume dramas, and invest a bit more time and effort in creating expansive, inclusive stories about who we are. There’s an insight to be developed here, but Ahmed didn’t develop it beyond the demand for greater representation of ethnic minorities.