Riz Ahmed accepts the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie for “The Night Of” at Sunday’s 69th Primetime Emmy Awards. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
For nearly seven decades, a South Asian man had never won an Emmy in an acting category.
That changed Sunday night with Riz Ahmed, a British actor of Pakistani descent, winning an Emmy award for outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie for his role in HBO’s “The Night Of.” Before him, only one other South Asian star had taken home an acting award from the ceremony — Archie Panjabi, who won an Emmy for her role in “The Good Wife” in 2010.
Ahmed’s win was seen as a long-overdue victory for South Asians and his fellow Muslims. His success is significant not only because of his historic win, but because of the character he portrayed: Naz, a nuanced, relatable college student from Queens — who also happens to be Pakistani. While “The Night Of” tackles issues of race and Islamophobia, Naz’s ethnicity and religion are secondary to the story’s main plot.
“Its always strange reaping the rewards of a story that’s based on real world suffering,” Ahmed, who is also an activist and rapper, said in his acceptance speech. “But if this show has shown a light on some of the prejudice in our society, Islamophobia, some of the injustice in our justice system, then maybe that’s something.” He also gave a shout-out to the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people, and the Queens-based organization South Asian Youth Action.
Ahmed told reporters after the Emmys that “what we’re starting to see is more awareness around how beneficial it can be to tell a diverse range of stories and to tell them in a way that’s authentic.”
“And I think awareness is the first step to real change,” Ahmed added.
Ahmed’s win wasn’t the only breakthrough of the night. Aziz Ansari, the son of Indian immigrants, won the comedy writing award for Netflix’s “Master of None,” after making history last year as the first South-Asian person nominated for an acting Emmy. He shared this year’s comedy writing award with Lena Waithe, who became the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing on a comedy series.
“It’s a big year for the South Asian community and the Muslim community,” Nancy Wang Yuen, an expert on racial barriers in Hollywood, told The Washington Post.
Scores of South Asians sounded off in agreement on social media.
“When I was a little girl this was but a dream,” Canadian broadcast journalist Natasha Fatah tweeted, listing off Ansari and Ahmed’s names alongside two other prominent South Asian actors, Kumail Nanjiani and Priyanka Chopra. “#SouthAsiaRepresent.”
Another tweet called Ahmed a “trailblazer for all Asian and young people, proving it is possible to reach those lofty heights.”