The media is so powerful, even more than we may realize. In the 21st century, it is nearly impossible to escape the effects of deceptive social media posts, ambiguous news clips and misleading headlines, making it even more imperative for truth-tellers to take hold of the narratives associated with their communities.
In the entertainment industry, the best way to make that happen is by ensuring that people from minority communities are involved in every aspect of the creative process. No longer should white artists tell the stories of people of Color. When that happens, the end product is not only disingenuous, leading to false understanding of these communities, but it also prevents people of Color from feeling represented by art that is meant to encompass their culture.
When a person feels understood by a work of art, it has an unimaginable impact — it makes them feel like they belong. For many white individuals, this feeling is taken for granted; for people of Color, it is rare to find true representation in mainstream media.
It took me many years to feel represented in the art I consumed, primarily because there were not enough people like me working behind the scenes, authoring books, making films and creating art. When I was growing up, all my favorite books and movies — from the Harry Potter franchise to the Percy Jackson series to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — were created by predominantly white artists and featured predominantly white characters. The first time I remember seeing Muslim characters was in “Iron Man,” and they were terrorists. Because art and popular culture have a history of disproportionate whiteness behind the screen, the few non-white characters featured tend to perpetuate offensive stereotypes.
An important step toward increased diversity and inclusion in the film industry involves partnering with organizations that uplift minority communities and provide research and data on diversity. The Pillars Fund, a nonprofit organization, does just that.
In an email interview with The Michigan Daily, Arij Mikati, the Pillars managing director of culture change, said that Pillars Fund “amplifies Muslim leadership, narratives, and talent in the U.S. and beyond.” The significance of this mission cannot be overstated. Muslims have been belittled for too long, and by providing opportunities to uplift Muslim communities in the entertainment industry, the organization is actively fighting against negative biases in relation to Muslims. Many Americans still primarily associate Muslims with terrorism and oppression, even though there is so much more to the Islamic faith. People often say that Islam is not a monolith, but many non-Muslims remain ignorant of this.
The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a Pillars Fund partner, recently released studies revealing that “Muslims made up less than 2% of all speaking characters across the 200 top movies,” numbers that “hardly reflect the 1.9 billion Muslims who live around the world,” Mikati wrote.
She added that “the few portrayals that were there were often unnuanced stereotypes,” which can be harmful, as they affect how viewers perceive Muslims.
“Many people have little or no contact with Muslims in their day-to-day lives,” Mikati wrote. “So films can act as a way for audiences to identify with Muslims.”
If filmmakers believe the worst about Muslims, they will create films that perpetuate damaging stereotypes about them; when viewers consume these negative depictions, the cycle continues. If creators generate positive stories about Muslims that showcase their depth and multifaceted experiences, viewers may walk out of those movie theaters with a changed understanding of the religion. This positive change can only happen successfully if minorities are included in the writing process and are invited behind the camera — if minority members take part in telling their own stories.
Pillars Fund has also contributed to ensuring Muslims are involved “at every step of the filmmaking process (so) they can shape these stories from the very beginning” — by creating opportunities for representatives of minority groups to be involved in filmmaking, accurate depictions of minority communities become more probable. Pillars Fund’s Muslim Artist Database “make(s) it easier than ever before for Muslims to get involved in this process and for studios, agencies, and other film industry leaders to find them.”
Recently, there has been a fight for representation and diversity in the film industry. Audiences are calling for representation in all aspects of media and denouncing movies that discount accurate representation or include whitewashing. Entertainment companies have begun to place greater emphasis on films and television shows with a focus on non-white individuals — think “Ms. Marvel” or even “Black Panther.” While creating more diverse shows, executives and decision-makers for these companies are including actors and filmmakers of Color in the creative process, which is vital. Directors, writers and producers make the decisions. They write the stories that unfold onscreen, offer notes to actors and promote the films — they are directly involved in the most crucial phases of the creative process. Including filmmakers representing the identities depicted in the movies is necessary to avoid knowledge gaps. Uninformed portrayals can be misrepresentative at best and negative at worst, causing viewers to associate people of Color with false perceptions put forth by people outside of those communities.
We have also seen changes in relation to diversity in the uppermost echelons of the entertainment industry. Following the popularity of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag in 2015, the Academy altered its eligibility rules to allow for increased diversity and inclusion in films. Starting in 2024, in order for films to be eligible for the Best Picture category nomination, they must meet at least two of four diversity criteria. The Oscars are widely considered “Hollywood’s Biggest Night.” If the Academy made larger, sweeping changes to its rules and standards, we could see a cascading effect; more entertainment companies and organizations would fulfill a need to increase diversity in order to win a coveted Oscar. The alteration to their diversity standards and eligibility rules is a start, but we should expect more from the Academy and hold it accountable.
“Our communities have largely been missing from behind and in front of the camera for decades,” Mikati wrote. That is why it took so long for me to feel represented. I couldn’t find people who looked like me onscreen, nor was there anyone like me calling the shots behind the screen.
“Not only has this (absence) led to terrible misrepresentations of Muslims on screen, but there is an entire demographic of talented artists who have been underutilized. There is an abundance of rich, nuanced, interesting stories that Muslims are already telling, and it’s time the film industry recognized and showcased that talent.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Daily Arts Writer Sabriya Imami can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.