Oscar Winner Riz Ahmed and the Art of Just Being Yourself

 

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Ahmed at the “Rogue One” premiere in 2016

Riz Ahmed’s nomination for an Academy Award last year was about way more than a golden statue, it’s about the platform it provides to South Asians and Muslims. And with his win last night, he solidifies that sentiment.

Oscar season has just passed us by, folks, and this time we are playing “The Global Upheaval Edition.” Amid the trouble in Ukraine that’s already been dominating the conversation (which last night’s ceremony acknowledged) and THAT moment with Will Smith and Chris Rock, however, let’s take a moment to shine a light on British-Pakistani actor and musician Riz Ahmed’s monumental win for Best Live Action Short Film.

But first, a flashback. The nominees for last year’s ceremony for Best Actor read like a melting pot of who’s who and fresh faces, one of whom was Riz, nominated for his performance as the hearing-impaired drummer Ruben Stone in “Sound of Metal.” Which category does he fall into? I’d say both, because he has been in the industry long enough to have acquired a name for himself, while also seeing his first bit of big-time recognition. For some, he may be the category’s outlier, but he was easily one of the most important nominees up there, despite ultimately losing out on the prize to Anthony Hopkins.

From the very jump, Ahmed achieved the significant milestone of becoming one of the very few South Asian performers nominated for a lead performance, and the first-ever Muslim nominee for Best Actor. It’s dumbfounding to think it took this long for that to happen, given that Islam is the second-biggest religion in the world in terms of population.

The art of Ahmed as a performer, however, is in understanding how he uses each role to challenge our understanding of people. Many of those has been devoted to expanding our range of knowledge about Muslim and South Asian characters in cinema and pop culture.

A majority of Ahmed’s filmography reads like a list of Muslim names slapped on to performers in Hollywood, ones like Omar, Shafiq, Ali, Nasir Khan, and Tommy Akhtar. But they are characters beyond names and religion; they are humans in their own right, heroes even, shying away from the seriously outdated stereotype of the religious figure with a penchant for terrorism and a lust for traditional customs. Which is not even a bad thing…outside of Hollywood.

And beyond just representation on-screen, Ahmed has been outspoken throughout his time in the limelight about the depiction of Muslim and South Asian characters in pop culture, even addressing it in Parliament. He is even shown his support for repressed Muslim communities across the globe, like Syrian refugees and Myanmar’s Rohingyas. He even has a Bechdel test impersonator named after him, “The Riz Test,” which assesses the nature of Muslim representation in film and TV (which he approves of, in case you were wondering).

Throughout his career as an advocate, Ahmed has shied away from calling himself a “role model,” acknowledging that his singular experiences are personal and cannot account for the breadth of those of other South Asians and brown-skinned people. He is adept at using his personal stories to flesh out a narrative that creates room for further discussion without leading the charge himself. It is why his profile is considerably lower than others who speak fervently on certain causes, he does not go around proclaiming himself to be “the voice of the people.”

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Ahmed reciting poetry in London in 201

What sets Ahmed apart from several others who talk about inclusion and diversity is that he has focused on showcasing the most authentic parts of his identity and upbringing from the very beginning. In fact, in many ways, that’s pretty much the crux of his identity as a performer.

Let us relate that back to the 93rd Academy Awards. There’s a pandemic ravaging the globe, sure, but there were a lot more factors at play affecting the list of nominees. Let me hear you say it – there’s diversity! There’s representation! From nominees Chadwick Boseman and Steven Yeun, to winners like Chloe Zhao and Youn Yuh-Jung. 

Well, more than usual, that is. It is easy to reduce it to tokenism or recognition just for the sake of it, like with Ahmed’s career. But each nominee that year transcended the point of their identity with performances that delivered timely messages that inspire discourse and change.

While the irony of Ahmed receiving the most acclaim of his career for a role that does not showcase his Muslim heritage (both for this and his breakout in 2014’s “Nightcrawler”) is clear, it still has something to say about the way we look at the world and respond to people, deaf or not (also, given the night’s eventual winner, “CODA,” a great path forward for all communities involved!). Beyond recognition of talent, it is recognition of a platform that makes Ahmed’s nomination so encouraging.

He did not need the win to make the statement he needs to. In fact, for the first time, “just being nominated” might be the best thing he could have asked for. It’s what took him to the stage this year, for his nomination for “The Long Goodbye,” a short film based on his album of the same name that tackles the situation of South Asians and Muslims in Britain. Just being termed “Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed” gave him the launch point he needed to take his conversations to a much larger platform and eventually bring home that gold a year later.

Given the talent he has displayed, this win only marks the beginning of Ahmed’s rise. And if he continues to bare more of himself as that happens, now that he has your attention, that rise is going to be a meaningful one for many people.