Riz Ahmed Talks Representation Not Diversity

Despite the fiasco at the 2017 Academy awards with the top of award of the night for Best Picture, the signs that things may be changing in Hollywood just one year on from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, gives hope that the argument for diversity is finally bearing real commercial box office fruit. Yet one year on, have things in the UK really changed much at all?

I hate to sound like a broken record, but to put it bluntly we’re failing, still failing and consistently failing to represent Black And Ethnic Minorities fully on film and television screens in the UK. A look back at the BAFTA’s itself was a shameful representation of the continuing stalemate.

In the same week that the music industry celebrated the first Grime artist to hit the No.1 spot in the UK album charts, Riz Ahmed gave a moving speech in Parliament about the lack of representation in the media. Taking a cue from the British music industry, Riz spoke about how world conquering music genres like Drum & Bass, Grime, DubStep were “only possible by tapping into our multiculturalism”. With Stormzy’s no.1 album debut driven considerably by the mainstream adoption of the breakthrough artist, the week of release saw Stormzy making appearances across Sunday Brunch, BBC Radio 4’s Front Row to LBC and Channel 4 News. With brand endorsements from Adidas, Red Bull and Manchester United, Stormzy’s success proved the potential embrace awaiting artists once given the access to mainstream media and corporate muscle.

Following on from Idris Elba, this year Riz Ahmed the British Pakistani actor gave the 2017 Channel 4 annual diversity lecture in the Houses Of Parliament. One year on, Riz Ahmed reflected a similar problem highlighted by Idris Elba last year, rightly pointing out the challenges in trying to find work in the UK in film and television. Despite the fact that “Asian’s are such a big proportion of the population here”, Riz spoke about the fact that it took an American remake of a British show to cast someone like him in a leading role, referring to his role in HBO’s critically acclaimed television drama, ‘The Night Of’. Faced with the reality of a post-Brexit, post-Trump world, Riz iterated the need for truer representation in film and Television, emphasising the power of stories and their uniting effect.

We’re talking about representation not diversity.

Gains are hard won and the struggle is getting harder, as more and more people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are finding themselves completely shut out from creating their own narratives. Broadening out the issue of diversity, Riz explained that “We’re talking about representation not diversity. Representation is not an added extra, it’s not a frill, it’s absolutely fundamental to what people expect from culture and from politics.” 

“A Box office study showed that the most diversely cast films are now doing proportionately better” Riz noted, while also pointing out that the lack of representation meant that the UK is losing out on the economic and cultural benefits. It’s become clear to anyone watching mainstream British television that UK remains behind the curve and citing a few exceptions to the rule with actors such as Riz Ahmed, Idris Elba, or Micaella Cole, are just a smokescreen, because “prominent successes can mask structural problems”. Those structural problems were further articulated last year in Riz’s emotional essay in the best selling book ‘The Good Immigrant’ and point to a continual demonisation of minorities through negative stereotypes. What’s at stake, Riz asked? “After the Brexit vote, hate crimes went up 41%, against muslims they went up 326%”. 

“If we fail to represent people in our mainstream narratives they’ll switch off,” said Riz as he further explained that the lack of relatable faces or stories in the mainstream, begged the question – where are the counter-narratives?

Skills, training and the need for mentorships are one part of the argument to preserve access to people from non-privileged backgrounds, but the other argument is about the recently reported unconscious bias which has stopped the career progression for many trained professionals of minority backgrounds. Despite attaining the skills, the path to progression and recognition is loaded with obstacles.

Riz strongly proposed tying public money to proper representation targets, “so that the rooms in which decisions are made are representative of our community, and our nation, and tell a story that represents us all.”

Urging the government to step up decisively and act, Riz ended his speech by talking about the risks facing society as a whole. There is a need for accountability because with the lack of representation, we face the very real reality of losing British teenagers to another story, the kind of story that’s been sold by and fuelled by a narrow minded media.

A year after Idris’s speech, Riz Ahmed has become the poster boy for young British Asian’s in television and film and while the British Government may be celebrating his achievements, unfortunately little of his recent success can be attributed to British Television or Film.  Making a global breakthrough through US acting roles in Girls, The Night Of, Star Wars Rogue One and Jason Bourne, in one year alone Riz Ahmed has proved he’s hot at the box office.

Although it’s been 10 years in the making since his first role in the the Michael Winterbottom film The Road to Guantanamo, Riz Ahmed is a welcome breath of fresh air in the conversation about diversity. But at some point the conversations must end with action and looking at the dismal figures of representation of Black and ethnic minority people in Brexit Britain, there is still so much more work yet to be done.