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.
“It’s 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 shoutout to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit 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 a leading role in a television series. 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.”
As reviewers and commentators noted, this year’s Emmys show that Hollywood has made major strides in its inclusion of South Asian Americans. Not long ago, most roles for South Asians were bit parts, and included “terrorists cab drivers and the odd medical professional,” as The Post’s Lavanya Ramanathan wrote last month.
“A major metropolitan newspaper once counted Apu from ‘The Simpsons’ as a South Asian role — that’s how bad it was,” Ramanathan wrote.
Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project” was the first show written by and starring an Indian American woman. An Indian American comedian, Hasan Minhaj, hosted the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. And “The Big Sick” — whose protagonist, Kumail Nanjiani, is Pakistani American — was a hit film this summer.
In April, Ahmed was featured on the cover of Time magazine as one of its 100 most influential people in the world.
“U.S. culture has a new mantra: it’s down with brown,” the Guardian wrote in May. “In the past few years, entertainers of south Asian origin have gone from being a minor footnote in American popular culture to a headline event.”
But this shift has taken far too long, Wang Yuen argued, and the industry is far from where it should be. Ahmed’s historic win “punctuates the lack of Asian actor winners,” she said. Meanwhile, there were no Asian female acting nominees at this year’s Emmys.
“Women were missing again,” Wang Yuen said. “Where were Constance Wu, Lucy Liu and Mindy Kaling?”
“Talent is not the problem,” she also said, “but, to paraphrase Viola Davis’s speech from a few years ago, the only thing that separates Asian/American actors from anyone else is opportunity; you cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Wang Yuen pioneered a study this year called “Tokens on the Small Screen: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on Prime Time and Streaming Television.” Professors and scholars at six California universities surveyed 242 broadcast, cable and digital platform shows that aired during the 2015-2016 season.
The study found that 155 shows lacked a single Asian American character, including 63 percent of broadcast and basic cable series and 74 percent of premium cable shows.
Both “The Night Of” and “Master of None” were noted in the study among a handful of television series that “stand out as exemplary in their development of multifaceted” Asian American or Pacific Islander characters. It described Ahmed’s portrayal of Naz, as “strong-willed, moral, thoughtful, and completely relatable,” and “an everyman character who was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“The show even addresses racist perceptions of Pakistanis, as the White female defense attorney says to the press: ‘This is not a level playing field here. The victim is an upper class Caucasian, the accused: a striving member of one of the most reviled ethnicities in America.’”
While Naz’s ethnic and religious identities were carefully represented, as Ahmed told the New Yorker, they were not essential to the plot, which follows a young man accused of murder and entangled in the criminal justice system.
“It’s just nice to have complex characters,” he said. “I play someone called Nazir or Jamal or whatever, but it’s not about that, necessarily, without there being any erasure of my background or heritage. It’s just not the focal point, because it’s considered pedestrian. It’s no longer exotic.”
The role marked a “refreshing” change for Ahmed after portraying characters that dealt with these identities more directly, the New Yorker wrote. Those included a British Islamist militant in “Four Lions” and a Pakistani living in post 9/11 New York City in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”
He once said he’d “rather be broke” than play “Terrorist No. 3.”
For Ahmed, the portrayals of ethnic minorities work in stages, he said in a lengthy essay in the Guardian titled “Typecast as a terrorist.”
“Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype — the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner,” he wrote. “Stage two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on ‘ethnic’ terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes.”
“And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race,” he wrote. “There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave.”
Though Ahmed has begun “inching towards the Promised Land,” he still gets stopped and searched before boarding a plane every time he flies to the U.S., he wrote.
One person’s win does not fix “a systemic issue of inclusion,” Ahmed said backstage after the Emmys. “I think that’s something that happens slowly over time.”
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