Film Forward

Hollywood Still Plays Up This Terrorist Trope 17 Years After 9/11. One Actor Isn't Amused.

"Most of us go about our daily lives just like everyone else."

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

There's no denying that 9/11 changed the world as we all know it. But, 17 years later, there are still people on the receiving end of senseless discrimination — even in Hollywood. In an essay for Vulture, Amir Talai writes about what it's like being an actor of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent.

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Talai notes that one of his first roles was a 2004 TV pilot titled Homeland Security, where he played one of the 9/11 hijackers in flight school. A line delegated to him by the script read: "Is OK, I don't need to land." Talai saw this as a one-dimensional character but held out hope that it would just be a stepping stone on the way to playing more complex, non-terrorist roles. In the end, though, every role that utilized Talai's MENA background has been influenced by that horrible day.

"That's not to say I've only played terrorists. Far from it — most of the roles I've played had nothing to do with terrorism. But they also had literally nothing to do with being MENA. They had traditionally White names like Richard [like on a 2009 episode of How I Met Your Mother] or Mitchell [like on a 2013 episode of Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23], and no indication of their parents being immigrants, like mine, or of them facing any kind of anti-MENA racism, like I do."

Not only did Talai feel that this was happening too often — that a MENA background was either used to portray terrorists or ignored altogether — but fellow MENA actors felt the same way. Then, after looking into it, Talai discovered that there are some statistics to back up how he and many others were feeling.

A study released just days ago by the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition (MAAC), titled Terrorists & Tyrants: Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Actors in Primetime & Streaming Television, looks at the 242 primetime shows and found that MENA actors only make up 1 percent of regular actors on TV, and that 92 percent of scripted shows had no MENA actors while 96 percent had at least one White series regular.

Breaking down the findings even more found that 90 percent of the series that featured a MENA actor as a series regular only had one. What's worse is that one played a certain type of character — a terrorist, an agent, a solder, or a tyrant — 78 percent of the time and had a pronounced foreign accent 67 percent of the time. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that people of MENA descent make up an estimated 3 percent of the U.S. population.

The study lists a few ways to improve the representation of MENA actors on television — be it broadcast, cable, premium, or streaming — but we've already seen one: the Riz Test. This test, named after actor Riz Ahmed, measures Muslim representation in the hopes of showcasing positive portrayals of Muslims in popular media to eradicate harmful stereotypes.

"Know that MENAs are more than terrorists, and more than terrorist-fighters. Most of us go about our daily lives just like everyone else. We are doctors, lawyers, and baristas; we are straight, gay, and trans; we are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and atheist; we like music, sports, and eating out," Talai concluded. "What you see on TV is an extremely skewed picture, and every TV and movie viewer should take these study results to heart."

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