Until last year, the Mena region effectively didn’t exist as far as the Academy was concerned
How Azita Ghanizada has fought for recognition for Mena actors in Hollywood
It seems incredible to think that, until July last year, actors with a Middle Eastern background were, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned, Caucasian. From Morocco to the Levant and the Gulf to Afghanistan, if you were from that patch of land east of Europe, but not quite on the main Asian landmass, you were considered Caucasian, just like European and American actors. “Does this matter?” you may well ask. It does according to Azita Ghanizada, a successful Afghan-American Hollywood actress who has appeared in shows such as NCIS and How I Met Your Mother.
'Completely invisible until they needed a stereotype'
Ghanizada founded the Mena Arts Advocacy Coalition, which has successfully lobbied for demographic recognition of Mena talent. Perhaps surprisingly, Ghanizada says that the problems she faced as a Middle Eastern actress became starkly clear at the exact moment that the #Oscarssowhite campaign and the drive for more diversity in Hollywood casting reached a crescendo. You might think this would have helped Ghanizada, but she says the opposite proved true.
“There was a real seachange around 2014, and I was told I wasn’t getting the jobs I was going for because I wasn’t ‘diverse,’ I was just considered Caucasian, which is ridiculous,” she says.
“English actors like Tom Hardy or Benedict Cumberbatch don’t get questioned about their Englishness if they’re playing American roles, but I’m questioned because of the colour of my skin. I’m never going to be asked to read for the same roles as Jessica Chastain. That’s not a complaint, just a fact.”
In fact, Ghanizada says she was receiving offers for very specific kinds of roles, and they were not the sort you might normally associate with Caucasians: “They always wanted me to wear a hijab, or have very religiously driven roles,” she says. “I was becoming very confused because we didn’t have a status, so we were completely invisible until they needed a stereotype. All the scripts I was getting, I’d been betrayed and married off to a terrorist, but I’m strong in the end and stand up to my terrorist husband, fight for the American way, whatever.
“Mena Americans, in my experience, still identify with our very rich cultures, but we’re also totally normalised into our local community. But when they put us on screen they want to exoticise us and make us ‘other’. I don’t want to do that, I just want good roles. Do you know, or care, what religion Amy Adams is? Do you think she had to be a devout Catholic before she played a nun in Doubt?”
The actress says that, if the roles were reversed, the world may have a very different view of some of Hollywood’s darlings: “If white American actors played only Nazi villains, the world would have a very different perception of white Americans, but here we were, in an era of high fear and paranoia about our region, reduced to roles as terrorists. It’s honestly even worse for men. I’ve heard awful stories about the compromises my male friends have had to take for roles, just to pay their bills.”
The Mena Arts Advocacy Coalition
The drive for diversity had, disingenuously, led to even greater stereotyping for Ghanizada and her peers. While black, Hispanic and Asian actors found themselves pushed into more diverse roles, Ghanizada and her fellow “brown Caucasians” found themselves receiving an evermore stereotyped list of terrorist or long-suffering terrorist wife roles, since all the parts for blonde, blue-eyed Caucasians were, unsurprisingly, being filled by blonde, blue-eyed Caucasians.
Ghanizada was not one to stand idly by, however. She had already struggled her way from asylum seeker, with a family scattered around refugee camps, to Hollywood success with no knowledge of, or contacts in, the industry, so it was time to take up her next challenge: “I knew I had to change something, so I set up Mena Arts Advocacy Coalition as a non-geopolitical, non-religious organisation.
“That was important to me because there are so many conflicting political viewpoints and religious beliefs in the region, I didn’t want this to be a part of that. I wanted it to be about us as a people,” she says. “That’s why it was crucial to have Mena recognised, too. It would probably have been easier to just demand we go in with the Asian demographic, but that would exclude everyone from North Africa, so I was determined to achieve Mena recognition.”
Ghanizada had a firm plan. The bizarre Caucasian designation was not some Hollywood oddity – it came from the United States census, where those of Mena ethnicity had always been classed as Caucasian, and consequently this was common across the board in employment. Ghanizada had heard that conversations had been taking place in Congress about adding a Mena category to the census, so she gathered all the information she could about this, along with figures from the World Bank and statistics on hate crime, and began to lobby the Screen Actors Guild and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to attempt to put right the disservice that was being done to an entire people.
Ghanizada was often a lone voice in her two-year quest, although she does credit the invaluable assistance of three fellow actor friends – an appropriately diverse trio of an Iranian, an Israeli and an Egyptian. In July last year, after about two years of lobbying, leading actors’ and producers’ bodies in Hollywood signed up to create the first new demographic category in Hollywood for 37 years – Mena.
It was a long road, and Ghanizada concedes that, as a relatively young group in Hollywood, there is still a long way to go for Mena actors. She hopes the success of films like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther can help pave the way for the first big Middle East-led hit: “I’m tired of our stories being ignored, and then when they are told we get Alfred Molina or Antonio Banderas in the lead. Hopefully the success of those films can help more of us sneak out of the box and let global financiers see that you can have an authentic cast, and a hit, without dropping in big Hollywood stars.”
For her own part, Ghanizada has already had her first, post-Mena recognition success. She recently wrapped shooting on Kevin Smith’s forthcoming horror Kilroy Was Here, and managed to sneak a small, but satisfying victory for the region into the film while she was shooting: “My character in film was called Sarah Gomez, and we know this because there’s a line in the film where a character says ‘Will you marry me Sarah Gomez?’” she says.
“There was nothing in the script that required this character to be Latino, so I just said ‘Hey – there’s nothing in the script specifying Sarah’s ethnicity. I’m from this under-represented group, can we change it?’ Now it goes ‘will you marry me Sarah Sidiq?’ It’s a tiny, simple, little thing, but I’ve managed to layer a hero from that region of the world from nothing.”