Race for the Oscars: Rapper makes history as first Muslim nominated Best Actor

Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal.” MUST CREDIT: Amazon Studios via The Washington Post Syndicated Service

The opening scene of ‘Sound of Metal’ shows Riz Ahmed banging away on drums like a pro as part of a heavy metal band on stage.

The 38 year-old actor’s controlled intensity and restrained passion are already in evidence without his uttering a word. And he doesn’t utter many words through the two-hour movie about a drummer who loses his hearing and learns to deal with the loss.

Drumming was not part of this already accomplished British-Pakistani musician, rapper, actor, activist’s repertoire, who prefers to call himself just ‘British’ as he told The Washington Post in an interview last year.

But, in character with his love of challenges, Ahmed learnt drumming for the movie that is making headlines for the upcoming Oscars with multiple nominations.

And while he was at it, he also learnt sign language.

Rizwan Ahmed or Riz MC’s nomination for Best Actor is making waves for more than just the acting, for which he has received multiple awards and recognitions in the past.

It is for being the first Muslim ever to be nominated Best Actor at the Oscars.

However, religion or being Muslim is far from one’s mind even though Ahmed attends a school for the deaf run by a Vietnam vet (Paul Raci) on Christian church money, and proclaims more than once that he is not religious and neither is his girlfriend and loving bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke). Interestingly, Ahmed is also listed as a co-executive producer of the film.

Since hearing loss is at the heart of the movie, watching it is more like listening to the absence of sound, where your hearing intensifies rather than your vision.

Co-director and screenwriter Darius Marder has made the movie through the ears of the drummer – you hear what Ahmed- or Ruben in the movie—hears or doesn’t hear. His expressions tell the tale of the recovered drug addict’s conflict and the loss he is feeling.

As the film moves through Ruben’s efforts to recover his hearing, it almost feels like a true story artfully told, by a tightly wound actor whose race, ethnicity, or religion have no place in the script or in the portrayal.

As Ahmed told The Washington Post in an extensive, in-depth interview last year – Sound of Metal tries to help bridge the gap between hearing and deaf cultures, but it also demands that audiences wrestle with what it means to get a sense of purpose outside of themselves.

Perhaps some of his personal trauma over the year of Covid-19, helped channel his fine acting. Ahmed lost his aunt and uncle to the pandemic according to news reports.

Not Pigeonholed

In “Sound of Metal,” Riz Ahmed plays punk-metal drummer Ruben, whose life begins to unravel when he develops intermittent hearing loss. MUST CREDIT: Amazon Studios via The Washington Post Syndicated Service

Ahmed is in the line of new actors who have portrayed characters that are not stereotypes of Indian-ness or South Asian-ness, and are unbound from their cultures to play universal roles and be anyone.

If Aziz Ansari’s unfitting name- Tom Haverford- in the NBC comedy series Parks and Recreation was a harbinger of things to come, Dev Patel’s portrayal as David Copperfield, or Himesh Patel’s character in Yesterday, capped this emerging phenomenon of Asian Americans playing ‘regular’ people rather than being cast according to their ethnicity or race.

Ahmed is the pinnacle of that de-culturation with no negativity attached to the word.

He had already shown his talent and diversity in previous roles he played, in the thriller Nightcrawler; the satire Four Lions; and others. He told the Post that his ability to venture into the skin of different characters is partly because of what his life has required him to do on a daily basis in Britain – switch roles effortlessly, shrug off the person who you were outside when you enter your home, wear it back again when you walk out. Add to that the topsy turvy world during the coronavirus.

Ruben’s journey and his own, Ahmed said, are very similar.

“… Ruben and our society, both workaholics suddenly sent into lockdown, a kind of purgatory, by a health crisis that forces them to reassess what really matters, and who they are, and what gives them worth,” Ahmed told The Washington Post. “What does really matter? Is it the things we’ve been chasing? Or is it the things that have been under our noses the whole time?” he questioned.

Of all the praise heaped on this movie and Ahmed, the highest accolade would be that one is totally unaware of his ethnicity, race, or religion while watching this masterpiece. At least 60 actors were screened for casting Ruben, and it took years to land on Ahmed for the role, The Washington Post reported.

However, Ahmed faces some tough competition come April 25, when the Oscars are held in Los Angeles. He is pitted against Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom); Anthony Hopkins (The Father); Steven Yeun (Minari); and Gary Oldman (Mank).

Sound of Metal has also been listed in the Best Picture category, along with Mank, Nomadland, Minari, Judas and the Black Messiah, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and The Father.

Paul Raci, playing the Vietnam vet running a school for the deaf, has been named in the Best Supporting Actor category.

The movie makers of Sound of Metal are also in the categories Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and ironically, Best Sound.




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