By Walid Sankari
The Academy Awards, the Hollywood ceremony that recognizes outstanding achievements in filmmaking, has in recent years been criticized for its heavy bias towards conventional tastes and for its marginalization of non-white talent. This has been a longstanding problem not only with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but with the Hollywood establishment as a whole.
Yet in the past several years, there has been a concerted effort in popular entertainment to showcase the talents of non-white and non-western art and artists within mainstream distribution mediums. At this year’s Golden Globes Awards, Don Glover’s television series Atlanta won Best Comedy and Egyptian American actor Rami Malek won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama for his performance as a stoic computer hacker in Mr. Robot.
This year’s Oscars were notable for their inclusion of many actors, directors, and producers of color – including many Muslims from the United States and abroad. The night opened with Mahershala Ali receiving the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as drug dealer and youth mentor Juan in Moonlight, making him the first Muslim actor to receive the award. Ali thanked the teachers who nurtured him throughout his life and his wife.
The Netflix original documentary about civil defense volunteers aiding civilians in Syria, White Helmets, won the Academy Award for Best Short Form Documentary. It was one of two Syrian documentaries nominated for the award, the other being Watani: My Homeland. The leader of the White Helmets, Raed al-Salah, was similarly unable to attend the ceremony, but presented his statement to Hollywood wherein he quoted the Quran:
“We’re so grateful that this film has highlighted our work to the world. Our organization is guided by a verse from the Quran – “To save one life is to save all of humanity.” We have saved more than 82,000 Syrian lives. I invite anyone here who hears me to work on the side of life to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world.” Upon hearing this statement, the Academy rose to a standing ovation in support of a peaceful resolution to the war in Syria.
Asghar Farhadi, Iranian filmmaker and director of The Salesman, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, however he protested Trump’s recent immigration ban by not attending the event in person. His statement was read aloud by Anousheh Ansari, a Muslim American astronaut of Iranian descent:
“I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.
Dividing the world into the “us” and “our enemies” categories creates fears. A deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression.
Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever.”
These trends represent a continued recognition of Muslim talent in popular culture and the contributions that Muslim Americans provide in shaping popular discourse in America. Having long been known as artists and athletes, American Muslims are continuing their national tradition of incorporating social consciousness into entertainment.