Actor and rapper Riz Ahmed hoped that starring in his first film, 2006’s "The Road to Guantánamo," would dispel racist notions that Brown actors can only star in one-dimensional, stereotypical roles. But as the British-Pakistani Ahmed detailed in an expansive new essay published in The Guardian, his succes in that that film and other projects did not help him in a British airport interrogation room:
"What kinda film you making? Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?" an officer screamed, twisting my arm to the point of snapping.
The question is disturbing not only because it endangers artistic expression, but because it suggests our security services don’t quite grasp the nature of the terror threat we all face. A training presentation outlining Al-Qaida’s penchant for "theatrical" attacks may have been taken a little literally.
Ahmed, currently breaking out in America thanks to a starring role in HBO’s "The Night Of" and performances in films "Jason Bourne" and "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," breaks down three stages of roles for actors of color while describing a necklace of labels that constrict them:
Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype—the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner. It tightens the necklace.
Stage two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on “ethnic” terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes. It loosens the necklace.
And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave. In this place, there is no necklace.
The actor’s decision to star in American films, inspired by his inability to find "stage three" work in Britain, didn’t stop the racist profiling that so many who look like him (yet don’t have the benefit of his public visibility) face. Given his name and skin color, as well as "The Road to Guantánamo’s" filming in Afghanistan (the movie dramatized the true story of three British citizens captured in Afghanistan and detained by the United States at the infamous Cuba prison), Ahmed still found himself stereotyped by airport agents. He made the following poignant comparison between audition rooms and interrogation centers:
You see, the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same. They are places where the threat of rejection is real. They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels—never as "just a bloke called Dave." The post 9/11 Necklace tightens around your neck.
Ahmed’s article comes from "The Good Immigrant," an upcoming collection of essays from prominent Brits of color addressing "what it means to be ‘other’ in a country that doesn’t seem to want you, doesn’t truly accept you—however many generations you’ve been here—but needs you for its diversity monitoring forms."