‚ÄúRogue One: A Star Wars Story‚ÄĚ 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.
‚ÄúSometimes it‚Äôs very easy to look at the screen and go: ‚ÄėOh look, things are changing so much. Look, there‚Äôs Riz [Ahmed], there‚Äôs Idris [Elba], there‚Äôs Michaela Coel doing 'Chewing Gum,‚Äô‚ÄĚ Ahmed said.
‚ÄúThese 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‚Äôm getting on a plane to L.A. to attend the ‚ÄėStar Wars‚Äô premiere and I still get that second search before I board the plane.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúEvery time you see yourself in a magazine, on a billboard, TV, film ‚Äď it‚Äôs a message that you matter, you‚Äôre part of the national story, that you‚Äôre valued,‚ÄĚ he continued. ‚ÄúYou feel represented.‚ÄĚ
Ahmed then argued that the lack of diversity onscreen could cause people to ‚Äúswitch off‚ÄĚ and even push young teens to join ISIS.
‚ÄúIf we fail to represent people in our mainstream narratives... they‚Äôll retreat to fringe narratives, to filter bubbles online, and, sometimes, even off to Syria,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúWe 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?‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs like not to be represented onscreen. In his speech, Ahmed ‚ÄĒ whose parents moved from Pakistan to England in the 1970s ‚ÄĒ revealed he was forced to move to the U.S. just to find acting roles.
‚ÄúIt takes American remakes of British shows to cast someone like me,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúWe end up going to America to find work. I meet with producers and directors here and they say, ‚ÄėWe don‚Äôt have anything for you, all our stories are set in Cornwall in the 1600s.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Luckily, Ahmed found great success last year, landing major roles in ‚ÄúRogue One: A Star Wars Story,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúJason Bourne‚ÄĚ and the HBO series ‚ÄúThe Night Of.‚ÄĚ Despite this, he knows he is the exception and warned what will happen if the media doesn't start to do better.
‚ÄúIf we don‚Äôt 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‚Äôve been mis-sold a story that is so narrow about who we are and who we should be.‚ÄĚ