On the face of it, Rami Malek’s Golden Globes and Oscars best actor wins following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy looks like a diversity win for the film industry. Roaa Ali delves deeper into the significance of the Bohemian Rhapsody actor’s accolades
The lack of diverse representation at film industry award ceremonies – particularly within the Oscars – has increasingly struck a discordant note amidst the celebrations. Over the years, the Academy had provoked public outrage for its perceived institutionalised racism, inspiring the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign instigated by April Reign in 2015 and 2016 as a direct response to not one single person of colour gaining a nomination in the acting categories.
Attempts were made in the following years to address what was becoming an unsavoury public embarrassment, amplified and mobilised by social media. These efforts included a commitment from the Academy’s Board of Governors to increase the diversity of the Academy’s members, and there was a somewhat improved ethnic representation in the Oscars’ nominations for the ensuing years.
Celebrating Rami Malek in the lead role for the Bohemian Rhapsody sounds like the perfect combination to tell a story of increasing diversity and inclusion in the industry: an ethnic actor in a narrative about an ethnic queer icon – multiple boxes ticked! So far, Malek has won a Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Actor, Bohemian Rhapsody a Golden Globe for Best Drama; and Best Actor in a Leading Role at the Oscars
“His ethnic background has been, to a certain extent, whitewashed. Notwithstanding the fact that he is a great character actor who embodies his roles with depth and sophistication few have mastered, there are several characteristics that would play to Malek’s favour in softening his ethnic estrangement”
However, if we delve deeper in this story of recognition, we can spot a few issues that sully the air of inclusivity being celebrated here, and rather inform on how the industry reproduces and rewards white versions of non-white representations. The problem starts with executives and producers who are the gatekeepers of the industry and who ultimately decide which narratives and representations pass, and which are left outside the frame of recognition.
Malek, like the idol he embodies, comes from an ethnic minority background. Malek was born in California to Egyptian immigrant parents while Mercury was born as Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar to Parsi parents from India. Yet, in their current status as global stars, their brownness seems to have been roundly and habitually washed-out.
Considering that Rami Malek is one of few Arab American actors to win such prestigious awards, the notable press releases or reports (including the BBC, The Independent, and The Guardian) following his win failed to mention that Malek is of Egyptian heritage or an Arab American. His ethnic background has been, to a certain extent, whitewashed. Notwithstanding the fact that he is a great character actor who embodies his roles with depth and sophistication few have mastered, there are several characteristics that would play to Malek’s favour in softening his ethnic ‘estrangement’ and would render him a suitable candidate for success.
As one of his cultural and ethnic identifiers, Rami Malek’s name is somewhat illusive: it is a name that evokes foreignness in an Anglo-American Hollywood while being at the same time easily pronounceable and strangely familiar. His tan skin and bluish eyes, coupled with his Coptic religious roots, set him apart from the pernicious stereotypes which burden his compatriots of Arab descent. It also shields him from Islamophobic tendencies within the industry. Nonetheless, these characteristics present Rami Malek as the poster man for an industry that is desperate to dress up its lack-of-diversity predicament.
This is not to say, however, that Rami Malek’s path to stardom was an easy feat. In some of his interviews, Malek frustratingly mentions that he was routinely offered “terrorist” roles. This is the norm for Middle-Easterners seeking work in Hollywood, and to a point where he instructed his agent to decline any similar offerings that would come his way (GQ Middle East). In a 2015 interview with Time Magazine, Malek advocated for diversity to be an ongoing campaign rather than an exceptional one-off headline in the industry. He also commented on his own journey of being an ethnic actor: ‘At times, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t playing, you know, the roles that were afforded to everybody else. Or, was I too ethnic, or not ethnic enough?’.
This was a struggle that characterised his early career before his talents were globally acknowledged whilst portraying the lead in the hit series Mr. Robot. It was this particular role that resulted in Malek being established as an actor, rather than simply an ethnic actor.
Common threads: Malek and Freddie
It is also perhaps revealing that Rami Malek is celebrated in the lead role for Freddie Mercury. In the success story of both, the fact that they come from an ethnic minority background is neglected and often erased from the narrative of their stardom, rendering them exclusive products of the western cultural spheres they lived in. The exclusion of Freddie Mercury’s ethnic background from the narrative of his success was re-enacted in Bohemian Rhapsody, as the film ignored much of Mercury’s upbringing and seemed to marginalise his family in terms of screen time and influence on the star’s life.
“The ethnic experience of marginalisation becomes an inconvenience to the story, subtly fading in the lights of western stardom. In this regard, both Rami Malek and Freddie Mercury have been ‘rehabilitated’ and morphed from ethnic performers to global icons”
Much like his sexuality, Freddie’s ethnicity had been wilfully overcast in his own life and the fact that he was “Britain’s first Indian pop star is too little known and appreciated”. In essence, the minority experience and Farrokh Bulsara, Freddie’s original name, get completely erased from history leaving British Rock star Freddie Mercury to be exclusively commemorated.
While the experience of racism that Freddie faced in his lifetime was coyly referred to in Bohemian Rhapsody, the film still showed how some of his fans were openly racist and homophobic – a fact attributed to the universality of his music. However, a more accurate reading could credit this to the erasure of his race in the making of his celebrity status, and from the chronicler of his success. The ethnic experience of marginalisation becomes an inconvenience to the story, subtly fading in the lights of western stardom. In this regard, both Rami Malek and Freddie Mercury have been ‘rehabilitated’ and morphed from ethnic performers to global icons.
Ethnicity was not the only identity marker that was overshadowed in the story of Rami Male’s Bohemian Rhapsody, homosexuality was another issue that stirred a lot of heated debates. Members of the LGBTQ+ community questioned the casting of a straight man to portray Mercury. It did not help either when Malek seemed to be uncomfortable when responding to a reporter’s question on whether Freddie was a gay icon. This angered many who attributed this to Malek’s uneasiness with being associated with gayness. Yet, Malek advocated for more visibility and in-depth portrayal of Mercury’s relationship with Jim Hutton, Mercury’s partner, but the film seemed to sanitise a narrative of queerness to appease both conservative and international audiences (PinkNews; Malaymail).
All in all, the recognition that both Rami Malek and Bohemian Rhapsody received might on the surface be a celebration of diversity within an industry congested with whiteness. Yet, non-white representation seems to be edited in this instance to produce a narrative in the proximity of whiteness: passable, unoffensive, and ultimately not ethnically authentic.
What is next for diversity
It seems that progress in Hollywood is easier made when recognising non-white actors, than it is in producing and celebrating non-white representations. While the first can be easily fixed by changing the odds in a numbers game at an award ceremony, the latter is more nuanced and requires a deeper negotiation of whiteness in the industry.
Focusing on the positive, though, one asks what might winning a Golden Globe and potentially an Oscar mean for Rami Malek and for ethnic actors of similar ethnic backgrounds who have been routinely marginalised and forced into a stereotypical representation? Rami Malek may have safely left the pigeonhole of being an ethnic actor however that does not mean that the opportunities and recognition offered to all Arab American and actors of an ethnic background will automatically change. As it would appear, there are markers of success that an ethnic actor needs to inhabit in order to cross the dividing line between ethnic marginal and white majoritarian spaces.
The Golden Globes win and Oscars nomination can offer, however, a modest cause for optimism. Yes, ethnic actors must work twice as hard to get half as far, but the narrative of inclusion is changing ever so slightly in the entertainment business. The more ethnic actors, producers and directors there are in the industry, the more possibilities and opportunities they will themselves create and facilitate for their fellows.
Rami sums it up in one of his interviews: “Fortunately for me, I had an executive producer named Sam Esmail [also an Egyptian] who opened some doors and said: ‘you know, anybody can be the lead in the show. It doesn’t matter what your race is, how you identify’. It has just opened doors for all of us and I just want to keep breaking that door down for everybody” (The Feed). Slowly, ethnic practitioners are forcing the entertainment industry to recognise diversity for its own merit, rather than a corporatised social responsibility badge the industry and its institutions wish to wear.
Roaa Ali’s research explores the representation of ethnic minorities and the politics of cultural production post 9/11. She joined the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (University of Manchester) in 2018 as a Research Associate, and she is currently researching ethnic minority access to, presence, and representation in the cultural industry.
Roaa completed her PhD at the University of Birmingham, where she focused on post 9/11 Arab American theatre, explored representations of Arabs post 9/11 and how Arab American artists are producing counter artistic narratives.Follow @roaaali_