Rami Malek Made Oscar History... But Hollywood Will Go Back To Business As Usual

25 February 2019
Oscars, Rami Malek
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Being the first Best Actor winner of Middle Eastern heritage is unlikely to open doors for others from similar backgrounds

Rami Malek is a champion. But some of us knew that already.

The Egyptian-American star of Bohemian Rhapsody became the first actor of Middle Eastern origin to win an individual Oscar and, true to form, made sure that the world knew about it.

“I am the son of immigrants from Egypt, I’m a first generation American,” said Malek in a touching acceptance speech.

“I may not have been the obvious choice but I guess it worked out.”

It certainly did.

This was a sweet, poignant moment for Malek, who will now no doubt be seen as a pioneer for Middle Eastern talent. And it could, or should, be a game-changing one for actors of similar backgrounds.

But will it?

Until Malek came along, very few actors of Arab or Middle Eastern heritage had made any major impacts on Hollywood. Roles for Middle Easterns were confined to Middle Eastern characters. And that, as everyone know, usually spells trouble.

In the world of Hollywood films, there are no Middle Eastern doctors, bankers or even friends; they only exist as deli owners, taxi drivers and of course, almost exclusively for many years, extremists.

I remember thinking as a teenager why Back To The Future, an otherwise wonderful film, had to gratuitously shoehorn a subplot about Libyan terrorists. Since then, rarely have Middle Eastern actors not played cartoon villains.

Over the years, few ethnic groups have been as negatively typecast as Arabs and Middle Easterners, and many have often confessed that while they despised auditioning for these demeaning roles, they did so because that was the only work available and they had to pay the bills.

Malek is different, perhaps luckier. Gifted, cool, impossibly handsome; and seemingly resistant to stereotyping.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean his Oscar triumph on Sunday will tear down barriers for other actors of Middle Eastern backgrounds.

Hollywood talks a good game when it comes to diversity, but in all likelihood things will be business as usual. Auditions for taxi drivers will outnumber those for rock stars.

As of today, Malek’s Oscar win stands, gloriously, as an exception.

Don’t hold your breath for it to become the norm anytime soon. Hollywood, the ball, as ever, is in your court.