Let's rewind to last week, when we all watched Riz Ahmed become the first male actor of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy for his role as Nasir in HBO's The Night Of. That same evening, black professionals came away as big winners too, including Lena Waithe for Master of None, for that show's tremendous Thanksgiving episode , and Sterling K. Brown for This is Us. In comparing the seven black and two South Asian winners, I saw a problem that's easy to overlook. We're so conditioned as people of colour to be thankful through a guise of "firsts": first Emmy, first Oscar, and first instance of representation, that the finer details get distorted.
Granted, Hollywood found its leading South Asian actor to give an Emmy to; I couldn't be happier for Riz, but it all comes with a caveat. The Night Of is nuanced in its portrayal of a man wrongly convicted of a crime, and they humanized the American Muslim like no other show has. It deserves credit for this. However, the show achieves this by making the idea of "prejudice" a footnote, and using his South Asian race as a catalyst to his perceived guilt. In doing so, white characters such as lawyers, officers, and people in power are portrayed as respectable, while Nasir becomes yet another person of colour criminalized by the justice system. You're never told who the culprit of his crime is, so the question of his innocence always lingers.
Yes, it's great that he won. But by winning for a role that adheres to/exploits/underlines stereotypes and comes off like a weak celebration of "representation." And there's that word again, "Rep-re-sen-ta-tion." It sounds good on the tongue, but I trust the word like I trust a Nazi with "free speech." What is that word supposed to mean anyway? Are we talking looks, is it a quota to fill? Absent answers to those questions, you get someone's bootleg version of the shit, someone's guess work.
As a black man looking in from the outside, I was curious about what an actor who's unmistakably South Asian thought about this. Much of what South Asian Hollywood is going through mirrors what black Hollywood still goes through with their own set of stereotypes; there's a shared kinship in that. Rizwan Manji, an Ismaili Muslim of Gujarati Indian descent, would of course understand that more than I could. Currently, he has a recurring role in USA Network's Mr. Robot and has a long history of Westernized acting roles.
"It's hard, because casting usually depends on where you're coming from. If you're writing for a show like 24, or Homeland, it becomes a problem if all you have is brown people being accused of something, looking guilty, or blowing stuff up and killing people," Manji told me. "Having one episode where that brown guy is actually good, just doesn't balance it out, so the misconception is that, 'Oh, I covered my bases,' but the [negative] images overwhelm the good."
Manji should know. His first major audition was as a terrorist for a film that portrayed the first World Trade Centre bombing. A major role he landed was being a cab driver in the TV drama Criminal Intent. While he acknowledged that "representation" isn't as cheapened for Muslims as it was in the 90s and early 2000s, he still sees the problem in some praised portrayals.
"My answer to what I feel is the best representation in Western media is that it hasn't happened yet. We've seen glimpses, but they often come off in a way that's easy for Western audiences to take in. Like when Aziz's character in Master of None distances himself from his heritage, from being a Muslim. I don't know if there's been a Muslim or South Asian Cosby Show for instance. Where we're just in your home, and we're perfectly relatable and happy at the same time."
In the case Dev from Master of None, he's a Tinder dating, liberal-thinking, bacon-loving American, and by those standards, is completely digestible as a character for Western audiences. On one hand, he can be celebrated for being far and away from the terrorist stereotype, but on another, it comes at the cost of suppressing a belief system that's in great need of some positivity.
"Many people don't even know a Muslim or South Asian person personally. This is how they get their information, from television or film," says Manji. "If all you're watching these celebrated roles that portray us in this negative life, you're going to live your life with a sense of fear for Muslim people that especially look traditionally Muslim. Without some visible change, it can become a dangerous situation."
That danger comes in the form of everyday islamophobia—post 9/11 rhetoric, Muslim bans—they all contribute to this bootleg idea of what South Asians are like on and off film. Despite the 201 terrorist incidents that occurred on US soil from 2008 to 2016; 115 of those cases being from right-wing extremists, South Asians still struggle with bleak or extreme forms of imagery.
Thankfully there's people like Sue Obeidi who work to remedy this. Her job is to largely to keep the suits behind the camera honest. She's the director of the Hollywood Bureau for the Muslim Affairs Council, and had a direct say in how Disney's new live action Aladdin should portray South Asians.
"We're not about being watchdogs, and we don't demand that the storyteller change his or her vision. But if you come to us, we'll give you honest feedback, because we know that audiences are very intelligent, and they can see through bullshit."
'We're not monolithic. Whenever there was a "good" Muslim or South Asian, it was watered down; not so religious. Later, it was the very religious character that blew things up in the name of Islam. To do this right, we have to welcome the good, liberal, but religious Muslim. We welcome all levels of South Asian and if we had all that in Hollywood, we'd be fine, but we don't make all the decisions"
But Obedi continues to help guide those that call the shots, to ensure that the industry isn't simply giving South Asians scraps and defining "representation" for themselves. Despite the tone of The Night Of, Ahmed's win gives her hope that things will change.
"We are about 1.7 billion in the world and of the 1.7 billion, about 99.9999 percent are just like everyone else. Our differences as a people ultimately unite us and make us more powerful as members of this human race, and film and television need to strive to reflect that."
Simply put, The Night Of was television, but in our effort to big-up roles in accordance to what the industry deems as "representation," we can't lose sight of the fact that South Asians, like any POC, are as much like everyone else and come in all varied forms. We don't need a white-as-hell networks to define what that means via the Emmys. We have to continue to demand that we be allowed to define that for ourselves as viewers, and as creatives, before losing sight by way of another "first."
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