“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” star Riz Ahmed addressed British Parliament over the weekend to discuss diversity. In his powerful speech for Channel 4's annual lecture, he not only proved why representation matters, but how the lack of visibility of minorities onscreen could have dangerous consequences.
“Sometimes it’s very easy to look at the screen and go: ‘Oh look, things are changing so much. Look, there’s Riz [Ahmed], there’s Idris [Elba], there’s Michaela Coel doing 'Chewing Gum,’” Ahmed said.
“These examples are often prominent because they are the exception that proves the rule. Prominent successes can mask structural problems. Obama was in the White House and you still needed the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m getting on a plane to L.A. to attend the ‘Star Wars’ premiere and I still get that second search before I board the plane.”
“Every time you see yourself in a magazine, on a billboard, TV, film – it’s a message that you matter, you’re part of the national story, that you’re valued,” he continued. “You feel represented.”
Ahmed then argued that the lack of diversity onscreen could cause people to “switch off” and even push young teens to join ISIS.
“If we fail to represent people in our mainstream narratives... they’ll retreat to fringe narratives, to filter bubbles online, and, sometimes, even off to Syria,” he said.
“We are in danger of losing people to extremism. In the mind of the ISIS recruit, he's the next James Bond right? Have you seen some of those ISIS propaganda videos? They are cut like action movies. Where is the counter narrative? Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories, that they valued?”
Riz Ahmed attends the 89th Annual Academy Awards on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
The 34-year-old British actor knows what it’s like not to be represented onscreen. In his speech, Ahmed — whose parents moved from Pakistan to England in the 1970s — revealed he was forced to move to the U.S. just to find acting roles.
“It takes American remakes of British shows to cast someone like me,” he said. “We end up going to America to find work. I meet with producers and directors here and they say, ‘We don’t have anything for you, all our stories are set in Cornwall in the 1600s.’”
Luckily, Ahmed found great success last year, landing major roles in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Jason Bourne” and the HBO series “The Night Of.” Despite this, he knows he is the exception and warned what will happen if the media doesn't start to do better.
“If we don’t step up and tell a representative story... we are going to start losing British teenagers to the story that the next chapter in their lives is written with ISIS in Syria. We are going to see the murder of more MPs like Jo Cox because we’ve been mis-sold a story that is so narrow about who we are and who we should be.”
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