Note: I originally wrote this article several months ago, when the anti-Muslim rhetoric was spewing from the political wagons. I didn’t publish it because I felt like I hadn’t really covered the whole frustrating mono-culture concept. I’m publishing it now, because as a society we can no longer continue the us-them disparities of any variety. We are at critical mass – entertainment and media have the power to unify, and they are choosing not to, leaving it to social media and pockets of resistance to the divisionary tactics. We can only fix this if we work together. This is my imperfect attempt to speak out and build forum for conversation. For further articles on diversity in entertainment please see “Know Your Diverse Audience“.
Lack of Diversity in Story is Hurting America
Robin Hood is one of my favorite stories, but of all the cinematic versions of Robin Hood in the last sixty years, my favorite is Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
As I’ve been struggling with how to start the conversations around the lack of diversity in entertainment, I recalled why I love this film more than other versions of Robin Hood.
Azeem, as played by the magnificent Morgan Freeman.
I was thirteen when I saw Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and to be honest, I was in purely for the pre-teen pleasure of my Christian Slater fixation and general appreciation of Kevin Costner, who’d recently wowed me in Dances with Wolves.
As a budding storyteller, I was prepared to walk into the movie theatre and be amazed by the newest version of the legend of a thief who robbed the rich to feed the poor. I hoped it would inspire new stories and adventures of my imagination – and I wasn’t disappointed. However, it’s taken me twenty-five years to articulate the reason this movie meant so much to me as a storyteller.
It was the first time I’d ever seen a prominent Muslim character portrayed in film. It was one of only a few times I could recall seeing a black man, portrayed as a powerful warrior of honorable, noble intentions and respect. It was the first time I’d seen a black character in the Robin Hood storyline at all, in fact; through every version of the legend, King Richard is absent because he’s fighting in the crusades, and there’s never a mention of who and what the crusades were in terms of the time period. It made perfect sense to include a wider, more scoped version of this story by bringing in an actual character to represent the diversity and breadth of the world, and bring anchorage to the events of the era in question.
When I look back at how much I loved this story, I realize it’s not just this aspect, but good storytelling in general. It’s a little bit of cheese heaped on hubris, with beautiful tension and cinematography. The interplay between Robin and Azeem is still one of my very favorite character pairings. Through the whole movie Azeem refers to Robin as “Christian” rather than his name. Robin consistently reveals his ignorance, as with the telescope and other civilities, but the fact remains that he is trying to be noble and care for his people; a trait which Azeem admires and resonates with despite their religious differences. In fact, their shared reverence for humanity and human life is the key that allows their friendship to transcend cultural boundaries.
Frame of reference: I was living in Utah at the time the movie released, and we were just out of the Persian Gulf War. The film was likely in production at the time the U.S. declared Operation Desert Storm. There were many conversations at church at that time about the cruelty and darkness of the Islamic faith. It was a faith I had no frame of reference for at the age of thirteen, and I had very little in the way of resources in northern Utah to understand it better or do research. So when a movie came out with a lead character, a black man, which I also rarely saw in Utah, who was noble, strong, independent AND Muslim, I was struck for the very first time with the sense that I was not being told the whole story about the world and its people. It was the first time I’d heard the term “Moor”, and upon asking for books to explain it, I was met with confused glances.
At the age of thirteen, I knew I wasn’t getting the whole store about the differences in my world and the peoples outside my own community.
My upbringing was quite sheltered, and many of the movies I snuck at friends’ houses or saw only the tv edited versions. Still, it was a very short supply of strong prominent African American character portrayals that didn’t portray them in entertainment as criminals or slaves, or afterthought casting choices. My childhood could be an outlier and everyone else presumably had a well-balanced upbringing of exposure to diversity and various faiths, but I suspect more and more based on the tension in our current social injustices, that my childhood was an unfortunate regularity, and that this lack of exposure to differences via story and entertainment has done us all the disservice of not “seeing” our fellow countryman as equal, which contributes to the racial imbalances in our current country’s events, as well as making it easier to dismiss the suffering of Muslim refugees and the devastation in other countries quite simply because we, as a predominantly white, Christian culture, have not “witnessed” otherness on the screen or elsewhere. Entertainment and media have bubbled the white privilege, the straight normativity, masculine patriarchy, and Christian moral assumptive classifications into “we” and everything else as “them”. Division and cultural breakdown is eventually a given result of such blindness to actual humanity.
I always knew I wanted to be a storyteller. I wasn’t sure which medium I’d finally settle into, but story was the only thing I ever knew for certain would be my future.
I knew Morgan Freeman from Glory, Driving Miss Daisy, and Lean on Me, in which he always played a character I couldn’t look away from. All of his acting choices offered a sense of comfort, reason and logic. As in, his theatrical choice to move one way or the other on screen, emphasize one line over another, or engage left or right, always seemed inspired by the logic of his character’s storyline.
As a storyteller I inherently trusted him, his work, his face and his voice, because I never doubted his use or expression of character. So the summer after Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, I realized I was not seeing the whole picture. I trusted Morgan Freeman’s storytelling enough to then distrust the reality of what the world as a whole was suggesting about Muslims, and also black peoples. His performance caused a crack in my current reality, curiosity and empathy seeped in. This is the most amazing, and powerful of storytelling gifts, altering a perception or understanding. Changing a paradigm.
Is this why so many minorities are passed over for parts? Is this why Hollywood whitewashes? To keep the paradigm from cracking? Food for thought.
As kids we’re reliant on the information offered to us, or what we have the limited access to dig up ourselves. In super white-washed Utah, home of the nearly mono-religious culture of Mormonism, a faith that prevented African Americans from holding priesthood until 1978, my only frame of reference for diversity was the sheer luck that I’d lived briefly in Arizona, and whatever movies or television I had access to that weren’t screened by my mother.
Sadly, because of the market conditioning and lack of diversity in movie and television, my general exposure to diversity, minorities and other religions were of thuggish, unethical and or inhuman characteristics. It was an unfair representation of the people of my world, even the people of my own country, and it remained my frame of reference until I left Utah and moved to Alaska.
My childhood did not have enough exposure to diversity to comprehend real differences, or get comfortable with the idea that my bubble wasn’t the only bubble people should or could live in. Such exposure and learning took time, travel and many hard conversations with myself to separate what entertainment told me about diversity, versus what the world really had to offer in human variety.
I’m still not good at it. I still struggle to think with better diversity. I still struggle to make unexpected character representation leaps in my own writing. But I realize now, I’m bored. BORED with any movie that doesn’t give the appearance of trying to be more representative to gender, race, sexuality, and so on. I’m BORED with the white faces on prime time television and the still prominent males in leadership roles of nearly every variety, while the token female or black leader gets added after the fact. I’m bored with market conditioning… so much so that I gave up my tv and haven’t felt the loss.
Operation Desert Storm ended four month before Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves hit theaters, and I never saw a strong Muslim lead, portrayed by a black man, just going about his normal non-violent business and humanity again. I have yet to see a Muslim portrayed in film that doesn’t rely on the religiosity of their faith as the focal point of their character and the purpose of their role in the story, which is completely ridiculous and only perpetuates the lack of understanding of the Islamic faith.
As for my first understandings of the disparity of representative diversities, Azeem, it’s been twenty-five years since a character that different, portrayed that respectfully, has held a prominent role in American cinema and entertainment. (Call out the ones I’m forgetting; it’s not intentional, I just really can’t think of one.)
We need better stories. Stories that represent us as a human race with more fairness and respect to variety. We all need more fulfillment of the depth, the facets, the nuances and multitudes of peoples, faiths, ideas, and experiences. Our humanity is incomplete without it.
Please help the story, the storytellers, the kids who will never know what else is out there if they don’t get to read it or view it, because their world experiences are potentially so limited to their geography and circumstances. Please help tell the stories that will allow kids who are different to see faces, and ideas that are like them portrayed well. Please help the others without voices to feel welcomed in their own towns by showing how well people can get along, even when their faiths are different or their backgrounds aren’t similar.
We need stories for all of us, for more reasons than can be accounted for in one pithy article. We are at a point of critical mass, change must happen. Entertainment and media have the first and best chance to teach, share and participate in a wider more inclusive forum – celebrating differences and honoring similarities.
Please feel free to call out books, movies, and shows that represent these principles, so others can look them up and check them out.
Please feel free to comment on your experiences of diversity or lack thereof in the American entertainment world.
Please keep all comments civil and respectful. We are all raw and tender from the violence in our world and the carelessness of words can do so much harm while exposure is so fresh. Be thoughtful to one another.