He may have missed out on the Oscars, but British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed made history nonetheless by becoming the first Muslim actor nominated for an the best actor award for his portrayal of ex-heroin addict and heavy metal drummer, Ruben, who grapples with losing his hearing in the Darius Marder film, “Sound of Metal.” Ahmed’s nomination came a few years after Mahershala Ali made his own history with two best supporting actor wins in 2017 and 2019.
The best actor trophy went to Anthony Hopkins for his work in “The Father.” Florian Zeller’s film, based on his play of the same name, sees Hopkins play an aging patriarch struggling with dementia. Hopkins edged past Ahmed, Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Gary Oldman (“Mank”), and Steven Yeun (“Minari).
Ahmed’s “Sound of Metal,” however, won two awards at the 93rd Academy Awards on April 25 — Best Sound and Best Editing. This year, the ceremony combined what were previously two awards (Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing) into one overall award. The award was presented by Ahmed himself, and was accepted by Nicolas Becker live from Paris, speaking on behalf of the film’s five-person sound design team. Mikkel E. G. Nielsen, the film’s editor, who received the award from presenter Harrison Ford, thanked Denmark. “I’m from Denmark, I would like to greet Denmark because they are extremely bold at funding the Danish film school,” he said. “That’s amazing, this is what you get so just continue doing it.”
Earlier, Ahmed and his wife Fatima Farheen Mirza made their red carpet debut as a married couple. Ahmed was seen walking with his arm draped around the author as they posed for photos together. While the “Sound of Metal” actor kept his look simple with an all-black suit and coordinating black shirt, his wife went tradition with a light blue salwar kameez and red heels. As they made their way down the red carpet, Ahmed was seen fixing Mirza’s hair before they posed for pics together. A video of the moment was tweeted by many media outlets, including Vanity fair.
Comments lauding Ahmed for his sweet gesture flooded the Twitter universe. A user credited them for setting “couple goals,” while another thanked them for showing that “marriage is not a scam.” One user tweeted: “This is so loving,” one user commented, while another tweeted: “How adorable,” tweeted another. “Riz Ahmed definitely makes me reconsider the possibility of marriage,” tweeted Ousha Bi.
Before the Oscar ceremony began, Ahmed told actor and comedian Lil Rel Howery that the role of Ruben in “Sound of Metal” was “an eyeopener.” He said the film is “special” because it talks about two important issues, addiction and the deaf community. For his role, Ahmed studied with an ASL coach for nearly a year to bring authenticity to the role. He learned to play drums as well. “Drumming and ASL are both non-verbal means of communication,” Ahmed told Variety. “They both shared the same challenge for someone word-oriented like myself, to get past that crutch and communicate with my body. That was the challenge.”
Speaking to The New York Times about his nomination for “Sound of Metal,” Ahmed said, “It feels lovely, particularly to see the film get six nominations,” he said, and added, “For your own nomination, you feel very lucky and humbled. But for your teammates, seeing things like best editing and best picture and Paul Raci” — his co-star — “you’re punching the air and you’re jumping up and down in your bed. I feel over the moon and just so excited for the rest of the team.”
Ahmed’s nomination has given him a certain cachet within the industry and could further catapult his surging career to astronomical heights. The mere presence of Ahmed’s name in the list of best actor candidates carries a significance that easily eclipses his individual success. For decades, Hollywood has regularly been plagued by Muslim tropes such as the violent terrorist, the wealthy and crooked Arab sheikh and the woman who is either a fully veiled subordinate or a lascivious belly dancer.
As Jack Shaheen, who researched the representations of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood, concluded to The Guardian that they (Muslims) have “been the most vilified group in the history of Hollywood.” His 2001 book, “Reel Bad Arabs,” dissected 1,000 films made between 1896 and 2000 and found that only 12 portrayed Arabs or Muslims positively.
The scope narrowed further after Sept. 11, as American Muslims were increasingly seen through the lens of national security and radicalization. This led to the emergence of the “good Muslim” and “bad Muslim” dichotomy. A good Muslim was a dependable patriot who combatted terrorism, while a bad Muslim abetted or committed terrorism. Though the good Muslim character gained traction in Hollywood, it further limited the range Muslim characters could have on screen.
Ahmed previously broke barriers at the Emmys in 2017, when he won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series for “The Night Of,” becoming the first Asian and first Muslim to win in the category, and the first Muslim and first South Asian to win a lead acting Emmy. He had received two nominations – “The Night Of” and his guest spot in “Girls”
Born on Dec. 1, 1982, Rizwan Ahmed also known as Riz MC, is not just an actor, but a rapper, and activist. The Oxford-educated son of working class Pakistani parents who immigrated to England in the 1970s, Ahmed found his affinity for acting to be a natural consequence of the many characters, identities and “costumes” he had while growing up. And it was this affinity and Ahmed’s considerable talents that has allowed him to make a dent in these entrenched stereotypes.
Ahmed was acutely aware of how success in Hollywood could be frustratingly uncertain for someone who looked like him. In a 2016 Guardian essay, Ahmed laid out the traditional stages ethnic minority actors must usually pass through to get to the “Promised Land” — playing a character “not intrinsically linked to his race.”
“Portrayals of ethnic minorities worked in stages, I realized, so I’d have to strap in for a long ride. Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype – the minicab driver/terrorist/corner shop 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.”
He further added, “To begin with, auditions taught me to get through airports (I was no longer cast as a radical Muslim). In the end, it was the other way around. I’m an actor. Since I was a teenager I have had to play different characters, negotiating the cultural expectations of a Pakistani family, Brit-Asian rudeboy culture, and a scholarship to private school. The fluidity of my own personal identity on any given day was further compounded by the changing labels assigned to Asians in general.”
Ahmed, eschewed the reductive roles that were readily on offer post-Sept. 11, making his achievement all the more remarkable and significant. He managed to start at stage two by playing a British Muslim who is mistakenly captured in Afghanistan by American forces in “The Road to Guantanamo,” an inept British jihadi in the terrorism satire “Four Lions” and a Pakistani who becomes disenchanted with America after 9/11 in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”
That built a credible portfolio that paved the way for the 2016 blockbuster successes of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “The Night Of,” which bagged the Brit an Emmy for his performance as a young Pakistani American, Nasir Khan who is accused of a grisly murder.The versatile and talented actor has won one Emmy Award, out of two Emmy nominations, and was also nominated for a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, and three British Independent Film Awards.
Initially known for his work in independent films such as “The Road to Guantanamo” (2006), “Shifty” (2008), “Four Lions” (2010), “Trishna” (2011), “Ill Manors” (2012), and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2013), before his break-out role in “Nightcrawler” (2014).In 2016, he starred in Una, Jason Bourne, and as Bodhi Rook in the Star Wars Anthology film Rogue One, as well as in the HBO miniseries The Night Of, receiving critical acclaim for his performance as Nasir Khan.
While the rapper-actor has broken from ethnic characters previously in “Jason Bourne” and “Venom,” neither character quite compares to his depiction of a heavy-metal drummer named Ruben in “Sound of Metal.” Through Ruben, a deaf ex-heroin-user with peroxide hair and ambiguous origins, Ahmed aims to achieve more than just on-screen representation of brown and Muslim communities. While the Oscar nominee has spoken repeatedly about the need for people to see themselves reflected in his work, he hopes that layered characters like Ruben can stretch culture enough to make people see and care for the stories of those who are different.
With the Academy making strides in becoming more diverse since a social media movement preceded the 2016 ceremony, Ahmed feels the range of stories that have reached Oscar’s stage since have been reflective of the drive at the heart of storytelling. “It’s why we do it, to stretch our hearts and stretch our minds, and in the process stretch culture,” he tells Deadline. “We should stretch culture so that it’s big enough and wide enough and expansive enough so that there’s space for all of us to find ourselves in it, to feel that we belong and that we’re included, and that we matter. These changes aren’t just something that’s good politically or socially. It’s something which allows stories and storytelling to get back to its original intention, which is to embrace all of us.”
No single film, TV show or actor’s performance will ever pretend to upend Muslim stereotypes or capture every Muslim’s experience. Nor should it be expected to. But this Oscar nomination (and win) is a nice little crack that pushes us forward, that gets us more into the door.