Film Forward

For Riz Ahmed, There's A Difference Between 'Diversity' And 'Representation' In Media

"We all want to feel seen and heard and valued."

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.

Actor Riz Ahmed recently stopped by The Daily Show to talk to host Trevor Noah about his role in the new movie Venom. The interview included a discussion of diversity and representation in media, and why Ahmed believes there's an important difference between the two terms.

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Noah mentioned how refreshing it is to see Ahmed as the character he plays in the new film, pointing out that Middle Eastern or South Asian actors (Ahmed is British Pakistani) are often cast as "bad guy number four, terrorist number seven." He asked Ahmed about working towards improved diversity and representation, calling it "a difficult discussion to have right now in Hollywood."

Ahmed started by calling it "weird" that "certain people's faces or experiences are seen as universally relatable, and other people's aren't," or that it is considered "remarkable" that he can play a range of characters, when, as he says, "that's the basis of acting itself."

The actor went on to break down what he believes the difference is between diversity and representation, using a clever metaphor to explain why he prefers to focus on representation:

I don't like to talk about diversity. I feel like it sounds like an added extra. It sounds like the fries, not the burger. It sounds like something on the side. You got your main thing going on, and you sprinkle a little bit of diversity on top of that. That's not what it's about for me. It's about representation. And representation is absolutely fundamental in terms of what we expect from our culture and from our politics. We all want to feel represented. We all want to feel seen and heard and valued. So I prefer to talk about representation.

On Sunday, Ahmed shared a video of this explanation on his Twitter account, where it has received more than 20,000 likes and a number of positive responses from others who agree with the distinction. "Diversity is about making the already powerful person in the room feel better about themselves," wrote user Ramzi DeHani. "Representation is about allowing people to see themselves in the stories allegedly being made for them."

This isn't the first time Ahmed has spoken about the importance of representation in media. In 2017, he delivered a speech on the topic at the British House of Commons. "I'm here to ask for your help in finding a new national story that embraces and empowers as many of us as possible, rather than excluding us and alienating large sections of the population," he said at the time.

Ahmed, who last year became the first man of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy, has even inspired an initiative to improve the representation of Muslims in film and television. The Riz Test, similar to the Bechdel Test for sexism in film, measures how well a piece of media represents Muslim characters

The actor responded to the test on Twitter earlier this year, writing, "Not sure I ever had anything named after me before, but am glad to see this. Much needed."

You can watch Ahmed's entire interview with Noah here.

Cover image: Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com

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