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Riz Ahmed: Five movies that helped define the British Muslim Oscar winner's career

With his first Oscar for live action short 'The Long Goodbye', we look at some of the actor's other notable works
Riz Ahmed has had starring roles in movies, including 'Venom' and 'Four Lions' (AFP/Matt Winkelmeyer)

Riz Ahmed's Oscar win for the live action short The Long Goodbye is the latest and most prestigious addition to a growing awards cabinet.

The British Muslim actor made history in 2021 when he became the first Muslim to be nominated for the best actor Oscar, which eventually went to fellow Briton, Anthony Hopkins.

Oscars 2022: Riz Ahmed's win another 'first' for Hollywood's Muslims
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With Ahmed both co-writing and featuring in the short, The Long Goodbye tackles anti-immigrant sentiment after Britain’s campaign to leave the European Union.

The film, which runs at just under 12 minutes, is part of his nine-track concept album of the same name that explores notions of identity and belonging. 

Centred around the life of a British Asian family, the film warns of the danger of a dystopic future should hate speech and racism be left unchecked.

The film ends with a rhymed monologue, in which Ahmed, an accomplished rapper, talks about the place people of colour occupy in British society.

Born and raised in London to Pakistani parents, Ahmed studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, and then later trained to become an actor at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, before making his film debut in 2006. 

Now an established Hollywood star, with significant roles in the Star Wars films and the blockbuster Venom, Ahmed has not suppressed his activist streak despite his success. 

In 2017, Ahmed delivered a speech at the House of Commons questioning the lack of on-screen diversity in the media, and warning that excluding Muslim youths from the creative industries could push them into the hands of groups like the Islamic State.

That same year he graced the front cover of Time Magazine, as one of its 100 most influential people.  

His campaign for better representation led to the creation of The Riz Test, which is now used by filmmakers to assess Muslim representation in film and TV, and to raise awareness of casting Muslim actors in stereotypical roles. 

While Ahmed's first film The Road to Guantanamo saw him play a suspected terrorist, the movie was praised for it's three-dimensional depiction of its lead characters, who were based on a real-life group of British Muslims, who were imprisoned at the US prison in Cuba.

The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival where it won the Silver Bear Award, with Ahmed saying in one interview: "When it won a prestigious award at the Berlin film festival, we were euphoric. For those who saw it, the inmates went from orange jumpsuits to human beings."

After production on the film ended, Ahmed and his co-stars say they were detained and physically assaulted at Luton Airport by British border guards.

Rapping about the incident in his track Post-9/11 Blues, Ahmed said: "I kind of found myself in this post-9/11 circus."

The airport incident was one of many for the actor.

In one interview he made light of the experience and said: "My ‘random selection’ flying to LA was so reliable that as I started travelling more, I went through a six-month stretch of being searched by the same middle-aged Sikh guy.

"I instinctively started calling him uncle, as is the custom for Asian elders. He started calling me beta, or son, as he went through my luggage apologetically."

Such experiences must cut a stark contrast with the fame and adulation Ahmed has received since.

In this list, Middle East Eye looks at some of the actor's most notable movies.

The Road to Guantanamo (2006)

Ahmed's first major role saw him play the part of real-life Guantanamo detainee Shafiq Rasul, who spent two years imprisoned by the US at the camp.

The Michael Winterbottom directed docu-drama is based on the testimonies of three British men - Ruhal Ahmed and Asif Iqbal, as well as Rasul - who were captured in Afghanistan and then transferred to the notorious US prison in Cuba.

They were held there two years without trial and were released without charge in 2004.

The film shifts between interviews with the three men and acted scenes where their experiences are restaged to tell their story.

The trio from Tipton (known as the Tipton Three by British media) travelled to Pakistan to attend a friend's wedding, just after 9/11, but on arriving there discovered the wedding had been postponed. While in the region the men, all in their 20s, decided to cross the border into Afghanistan, they say to help with humanitarian aid. 

They ended up travelling to Kandahar and Kabul, but got lost on their return to the Pakistan border and ended up in Kunduz where Northern Alliance soldiers captured them and handed them over to US forces.

In an interview given at the time, Ahmed said the filmmakers had to soften their treatment by padding the chains used.

“While we were filming together in Pakistan, Shafiq would roll up his trousers and show me the indentations still left in his ankles by shackles. I came to understand that: when you wear those chains and they press on your shins, it's agony.”

Ahmed described the experience portraying Rasul and working with him and the others as “a humbling experience".

He said: "They have such strength of spirit. At the same time, they're just regular guys, standard lads, diamonds."

Four Lions (2010)

After reading journalist Jason Burke's book on the history of Al-Qaeda, British satirist Chris Morris started work on what would become an award-winning cult hit.

It’s a film that Ahmed had initially turned down, as he had already been involved in The Road to Guantanomo and didn’t want to reinforce “false and negative stereotypes”, he said.

But as his friendship with Morris developed, he realised Morris’s approach was different, and would instead be pure comedy. 

Characters like Barry, a Muslim convert, based on a former BNP member who converted to Islam while trying to outwit the Muslims he was jousting with; and Waj, a clueless character who wants to become a suicide bomber and experience his idea of heaven - riding “rubber dinghy rapids” without ever having to join a queue. 

But it’s the character that Ahmed plays, Omar, a security guard by day and the leader of a terrorist cell out of hours, that brings the film together.

His disenchantment with western living draws him into the life of a wannabe jihadist and a series of farcical misadventures, like training crows to become suicide bombers and accidentally detonating explosives in a field full of sheep.

In an interview with Vice, Ahmed said he felt proud of the film: “It still stands up, and seems to be one of those films that's just had this kind of consistent word of mouth reputation for over a decade. I don't think people would have allowed the film to be made today.” 

Nightcrawler (2014)

Here Ahmed successfully breaks the stereotype of roles “Muslim brown actors” end up playing. 

In this psychological thriller, Ahmed plays Rick, a homeless man living on the streets of Los Angeles serving as assistant to a sociopathic media stringer, Lou Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Bloom discovers that media organisations are willing to pay big for footage of accidents, crimes and other newsworthy events.

Armed with a camera and car, Bloom resolves to be the first on a crime scene to sell the story.

Together Bloom and Rick begin manipulating the evidence and dead bodies to sensationalise the headlines. 

The film's director, Dan Gilroy, said his aim was for the audience to leave the film understanding that by buying into sensationlised headlines, they are themselves fuelling unethical journalism.

Although the film wasn’t highly acclaimed, Ahmed was now in the spotlight, and the Hollywood floodgates had opened.

Venom (2018)

Based on the Marvel character of the same name, Venom is a symbiote, or an amorphous alien creature that attaches itself to a human in order to survive on earth, in Venom's case it’s Eddie Brock, played by Tom Hardy.

Ahmed is Carlton Drake, an inventor gone mad, who, in trying to save the future of humanity, starts to experiment on other humans. Drake's character becomes bonded to Riot, an offspring of Venom and also its arch-enemy. 

It was after this role Ahmed decided to stay true to himself and focus on the independent projects he has excelled in.

In a Variety magazine interview, he said: “I’m not saying I don’t like those big movies. I’m saying I had not learned yet how to bring myself to those movies.

"Those films teach you stamina, technical craft, and it is a skill to be able to eke out your artistry in that setting.

"Look at Javier Bardem in Skyfall, I just hadn’t developed the skill set at that point to do the technical thing and the emotional thing.”

Sound of Metal (2020)

A movie that brought Ahmed an Oscar nomination, the Amazon production tells the story of drummer and recovering drug addict Ruben Stone, who starts to lose his hearing.

Ahmed learnt to play drums and American sign language to play the lead role. His captivating performance led to him becoming the first Muslim and Pakistani actor to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

His character, Stone, learns his hearing will not return but will instead start to rapidly decline. The doctor advises him to limit exposure to loud sounds until the right care plan is found for him. Stone, a passionate musician, defies the advice and continues to play his drums. 

Whie losing his hearing, he also loses his love, Lou (played by Olivia Cooke) who returns to her family in Paris to deal with her own mental health.

Stone starts to learn sign language in a local community centre, but realises this isn't enough for him, so he sells all his belongings to get cochlear ear implants.

The implants prove disappointing to Stone’s musical ears, nothing sounds the way it should.

Speaking about the role, Ahmed said: “So much of this performance and so much of this film is actually about surrender and letting go of control and allowing things to happen.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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