After years of watching Muslims portrayed as terrorists in mainstream TV and movies, an advocacy group hopes to change that image by grooming a crop of aspiring Muslim screenwriters who can bring their stories — and perspective — to Hollywood.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council is hosting a series of workshops taught by Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated veterans over the next month, an initiative that builds on the group's outreach for a more representative picture of Muslim-Americans on the screen.
The workshops are the natural evolution of MPAC's efforts to lobby TV networks and movie studios from the outside, and they fit into a small, but growing, movement to get more Muslim-Americans behind the cameras.
MPAC dubbed its effort the Hollywood Bureau, while Unity Productions Foundation recently started a similar project called Muslims on Screen and Television. Other nonprofit arts foundations, such as the Levantine Cultural Center and Film Independent, have joined forces by planning networking events for Muslim actors and training and mentoring young filmmakers.
"The idea is to really give Muslims an avenue to tell our stories. It's as simple as that. There's a curiosity about Islam and a curiosity about who Muslims are — and a lot of the fear that we're seeing comes from only hearing one story or these constant negative stories," said Deana Nassar, MPAC's Hollywood liaison.
At the council's first screenwriting workshop last Saturday, three dozen attendees packed into a classroom in downtown Los Angeles to hear Emmy-winning comedy writer Ed Driscoll give tips of the trade, from knowing the audience to making a script outline.
The students reflected a diversity not often seen in Hollywood's portrayal of Muslim-Americans, from a black woman who grew up in Mississippi to a stay-at-home mom to a defense attorney who dabbles in screenwriting on the side.
Khadijah Rashid, 33, said before class that her Hollywood experience included working behind the scenes on everything from reality TV to the award-winning biopic "Ray."
But Rashid said she had always felt her own story — growing up Muslim in the Deep South — was the tale she most wanted to tell. She recalled being teased as a child for her unusual last name and choking down chunks of dry cheese for lunch when the school cafeteria served pork, a forbidden food in Islam.
"I don't think it's much drama, but it's my own personal drama," said Rashid, now a single mother living in Pasadena. "I definitely want to tell my story, but I need to learn how. If I get the tools, I'll just pour it out."
Hollywood interested in authentic Muslim stories
With any luck, Hollywood will listen. The industry has taken more interest in telling authentic Muslim stories in recent years, said Ahmos Hassan, a Muslim-American talent manager who has been in the business for more than two decades.
"There's a demand for Muslim stories, but whether it's Muslim writers or not depends on the talent they bring to the table," Hassan, who owns Chariot Management, said during a break in the class. "They need to bring that to the industry ... and I think the industry is open to it now, more so than any time before."
MPAC has had some success working with writers and producers from the outside.
Its Hollywood Bureau was founded after Sept. 11, 2001, with a simple strategy: to make sure the portrayal of Islam on TV screens was accurate, even if it was negative. Since then, the organization has consulted on a parade of hit TV shows, including "24," "Bones," "Lie to Me," "7th Heaven," "Saving Grace" and "Aliens in America."
The group also has held meetings with top network executives from ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC, and throws a Muslim-inspired version of a Hollywood awards show each year for productions, both mainstream and independent, that advance understanding of Islam. In 2009, winners included "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Simpsons," for an episode that featured Bart befriending a Muslim boy named Bashir.
The goal is not to spoon-feed Hollywood Muslim-friendly story lines, but to increase awareness of the diversity of American Muslims and to be a resource for writers and producers, Nassar said.
"There's only a small, small number of people who are trying to drive a negative agenda. Most of the time it's innocent oversight, and they're very happy to get our take on what they're doing, to get our feedback," said Nassar, who also attended the workshop and is an entertainment lawyer by training.
That feedback has been an eye-opener and a challenge for some in the industry, where the Muslim-as-terrorist plot line has been an accepted story for years.
"When you're sitting in the writer's room, and you've got to come up with a plot line and you've got to come up with a bad guy, it's really easy to pull that out and say, 'OK, Muslim terrorist,'" said T.S. Cook, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter who will teach two of the four sessions. "It's a lazy man's way to villainy — and it's pretty ingrained."
Writer Roger Wolfson, who worked on the TNT drama "Saving Grace," said MPAC consultants were invaluable when he was assigned to write a script for an episode that featured a black death-row inmate who was converting to Islam.
In the plot, the inmate Leon had a personal angel, Earl, who had been guiding him. Wolfson's challenge was to show Leon's conversion and decide if his angel would change in appearance — or if he would continue to exist for Leon at all.
MPAC's consultants urged Wolfson to resist making Leon's character a militant, angry black man and instead suggested that he focus on the beauty and mystery of the moment of conversion. The collaboration paid off, he said.
"Everything was my idea, but I didn't know a single detail. I didn't know how you convert; I didn't know what it means; I didn't know what an Islamic angel would say, how an Islamic angel would behave," Wolfson recalled in a phone interview.
In the end, Wolfson showed Leon reciting the Islamic declaration of faith in his prison cell as his angel watches.
When Leon opens his eyes, the angel is still there and greets him with a simple "Us salaamu alaykum," or "Peace be upon you" in Arabic.
The episode was one of the high points of Wolfson's career.
"With every writer, you're always looking for new ways to provide freshness to your characters in abbreviated fashion," Wolfson said. "You can do that, sometimes, by making somebody a believable Muslim."