Oscar Nominee Riz Ahmed and the Art of Just Being Yourself

Ahmed at the “Rogue One” premiere in 2016

Riz Ahmed’s nomination for an Academy Award is about way more than a golden statue, it’s about the platform it provides to South Asians and Muslims.

Oscar season is here, folks, and this time we are playing “The Global Upheaval Edition.” That is right, break out your virtual viewing parties and socially distanced red carpets for a night of COVID-19 punchlines that fall flat, and generally predictable winners from a pool of limited mainstream cinema.

The nominees for this year’s ceremony, however, reads like a melting pot of who’s whos and fresh faces, one of whom is British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, 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’s easily one of the most important nominees up there.

From the very jump, Ahmed achieves 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characters beyond names and religion; they are humans in their own right, heroes even, shying away from the seriously outdated stereotype of the religious figure with a penchant for terrorism and a lust for traditional customs.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.”

Ahmed reciting poetry in London in 2019

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 Oscars. There’s a pandemic ravaging the globe, sure, but there are a lot more factors at play affecting the list of nominees. Let me hear you say it – there’s diversity! There’s representation!

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 this year transcends the point of their identity with performances that deliver 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. Beyond recognition of talent, it is recognition of a platform that makes Ahmed’s nomination so encouraging.

Will Riz Ahmed be taking home Oscar gold this time? Despite his late bloom as a contender, it seems like more of a distant dream, based on what every publication with a critic and every organization with a betting circuit has to say.

But he does 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. Just being termed “Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed” gives him the launch point he needs to take his conversations to a much larger platform.

In fact, he already has, with the release of his second album, “The Long Goodbye,” mere months after the TIFF premiere of “Sound of Metal.” The album, the first he released using his real name, dove deeper into the relationship between Britain and the South Asian population.

Given the talent he has displayed, this nomination 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.