A Lack Of Authentic Storytelling Is Driving Hatred And Division
In 2014, prolific director Ridley Scott’s biblical epic "Exodus: Gods and Kings", was criticised for its predominantly white casting.
"Batman" star Christian Bale played Moses, and in an increasingly identity politics-sensitive world, the film didn’t find an audience. Scott told Variety: “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
The outrage fermented well before the film even began shooting, but it was an instructive moment. While a decade ago, no one blinked at handsome American Jim Caviezel playing Jesus, in a much “louder” public space, where hashtags become rallying cries and think-pieces fill online portals, a discerning audience spoke. Authentic storytelling is not simply desirable, it is essential.
Younger generations are equipped to tell the stories that the west believed their elders could not due to language and cultural barriers. Yet, we’re witnessing a pendulum swing when it comes to diversity: from a lack of it, to an attempt to address it by over-representing minorities. What we need is authentic storytelling, not tokenism.
While many an opinion piece has been written about representation of ethnic and religious minorities in film, television and wider popular culture, much of the discussion has been in academic circles. That is to say, we are getting more outraged but there is not necessarily a great deal of complex discussion around the damage prevailing and consistent stereotypes cause to communities the world over.
For years, I have been immersed in this space. I have written extensively on representation of minorities in popular culture (often with Arabs and Muslims in mind, but not limited to these). It’s easy to see the diversity push as identity politics driven. But it is coming to the surface not to create further divides, but rather, address the clear demarcations based on race.
It matters: a lifetime of not being represented influences the public perception of other minorities, and entrenches a sense of superiority. Even now, as we scramble to implement diversity quotas, to be more inclusive, we risk over-compensating; asking for stories that create a sympathetic, almost condescending gaze of the poor minority.
At a time when terrorism fills our social media feeds too frequently, people who have helped to engender negative ideas about minorities wonder how we got here. Popular culture is a significant thread in the tapestry of hate and division.
My screenwriting teacher asked us in our first class, why do we tell stories? His answer was: because life is hard. There are a rising number of writers from minority backgrounds who are attempting to bring nuance to the portrayal of their communities, but more than that, a fresh perspective to the way their society operates.
As a screenwriter, and as someone who is frequently consulted to provide feedback on novels, films and screenplays, I have gained a great deal of insight into how stories are told, but also, how we can make them more authentic.
In writers’ rooms, I never ask for Arab and Muslim characters to be nice, to be the most moral, to be blemish-free. What I push for is complexity and humanity.
And it’s something someone who is not from my background may struggle to present because they have not lived the same experiences, no matter what universal understandings we bring to the table.
As someone of Arab heritage, lack of positive representation is something that has long bothered me. Even seemingly innocuous films like "Aladdin" and "The Mummy" trade in degrading stereotypes that Arabs are sneaky, criminal and unclean.
The problem is that it is not often left up to us to tell our own stories or to even have a hand in them. We are not trusted to offer a story that will matter to people with different lived experiences. The hope is, with an increasing focus on diversity, that this changes over time. It will take years, but there are signs of progress.
This is evident even in the representation of females. As Geena Davis’ excellent research, through her Institute on Gender in Media, has shown, women are represented far less than men. In children’s media, females are fewer and speak less. It’s not simply the figures though -- the representations are often poorly rendered. The push now, is for a film and television industry that is far more inclusive of women.
We are at a crucial turning point, and it’s worthwhile having a discussion that is not accusatory but constructive. In Australia, for example, industry bodies like Screen Australia are actively engaging with the industry to improve access to minorities who often struggle to carve a place in what has been a predominantly white space.
In 2016, Screen Australia published an extensive research report on diversity on Australian television, which revealed that Australian television fares poorly in terms of its representation of Australia’s population, looking at culture, disability and sexuality.
In the context of a shifting public psyche, there has never been a more suitable time to explore how we tell stories.