Hollywood’s Muslim Problem Is About People, Not Prejudices

Rarely has Hollywood made a film with an Arab actor in a leading role, but Disney’s 1992 musical “Aladdin” features, in a roundabout way, two. (Three if you count the Genie, although he’s a jinn and Arab mythology doesn’t ascribe ethnicity to the spirits.) Still, according to a new test created to expose the one-dimensional way in which Muslim characters are portrayed in Hollywood, “Aladdin” is deeply problematic, portraying the region as superstitious and misogynistic.


Taking its name from the British actor and activist Riz Ahmed, best known to international audiences from his roles in “Nightcrawler” and “Rogue One,” the Riz Test was created by a group of British activists as a way of measuring Muslim representation in movies. It runs like this: If the film has a character who is identifiably or by implication (ethnicity, language etc) Muslim, is that character presented as a) a victim or perpetrator of terrorism, b) irrationally angry, c) superstitious, culturally backward or anti-modern, d) a threat to the Western way of life or e) misogynistic (if male) or oppressed by their male counterparts (if female)?

If the answer to any one is yes, the film fails the Riz Test.


Anyone who has watched Hollywood films or TV – or indeed English-language programs from countries other than America – will immediately recognize the tropes and will wonder if there are any films at all that pass the test. It is certainly a high bar. (According to Shaf Choudry, one of the creators of the Riz Test, there are some: one is “Kingdom of Heaven,” a 2005 film about the Crusades, which includes a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of 12th century Arabian culture.)


The Riz Test is a version of the Bechdel Test, a way of evaluating the portrayal of women in fiction, usually movies, by asking a basic question: Are there two named female characters and do they talk to each other about something other than a man? (Unsurprisingly, well over 90 percent of major, mainstream Hollywood movies fail the test.)


Like the Bechdel Test, the Riz Test is less a tool of analysis than a mechanism for highlighting the systemic bias of the mainstream film industry. Few women, for example, will have failed to notice the sexism of Hollywood. But the Bechdel Test gives them an easy way to see that the sexism they perceive doesn’t apply to one film or one TV show: it is everywhere, widespread and systemic.


The same applies to communities of color. Through tests like the Riz Test, it becomes apparent that the problems are not individual, the result of a casting decision here or a newsworthy plot line there. They are systemic; they apply across Hollywood, from top to bottom, from writers to casting agents to producers to directors.


There have been other attempts to highlight these issues. The Latif Test, proposed by the British theater director Nadia Latif, uses five criteria, centered around whether there are two named characters of color whose dialog doesn’t merely support a white character.


A film could pass one test and fail another. “American Sniper,” for example, a 2014 film about the war in Iraq that is widely criticized for its portrayal of Arab characters, passes the Latif Test, but would overwhelmingly fail the Riz Test. But together what they show is that there are a very limited number of roles and a limited range of ways Muslims are portrayed.


Yet these systemic failures do not come about because of overt prejudice. Hollywood may have a Muslim problem, but that problem is about people, not prejudices.


It takes thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of decisions for a movie to be made. That means that every time a script is written, produced, cast and directed, there are thousands of opportunities for those with power to say something – to ask whether the hero could be a woman, or whether the Muslim character is too stereotypical – and those opportunities are not taken. The reason they are not taken is simply that most of those involved prefer to take the path of least resistance. There simply is not sufficient pressure on filmmakers to ensure there are women in genuinely weighty roles or that depictions of people of color are not racist.


The people who work with them every day and their bosses are not concerned about it; it is not a priority for their investors and advertisers; the media and film reviewers are relaxed about it, and they know that while the public may be irritated, on the whole they will not complain or boycott the movie. In short, there is no pressure on those involved to ensure gender or ethnic representation. On the other hand, there is enormous pressure on them to ensure the lead actor looks his best, the wardrobe for the love interest is fitted correctly and the promotional posters are printed on time. Given limited time, which are the conditions under which everyone in the media works, those are the issues that will be prioritized.


The answer, therefore, is pressure and people.


Hollywood, like any industry where perceptions, biases and individual viewpoints shape the final product, is like a piece of pottery: it responds to and takes on a shape depending on the pressure. The Hollywood of today looks that way because of specific pressures applied to the industry. Apply different pressures and a different Hollywood would result.


That’s the great value, but also the limitation, of tools like the Riz Test. It gives the public an easy way to understand a complicated issue. But real change requires something to be done with that information.


Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.