Typecasting, tokenism, collective vision and cancel culture with Ali Kazmi

ABCDEI’s first-ever guest, actor-director Ali Kazmi, joined us for a no-holds-barred conversation about some of the issues faced by BIPOC and other marginalized talent in the entertainment industry. The conversation covered many themes that are just as relevant in workplaces as they are in show business. 

While talking about his role in Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy, this year’s Canadian entry to the Oscars in the international feature category, Kazmi shared his disappointment with public sentiment around the cast not being fully Sri Lankan. The film depicted Shyam Selvadurai’s story of a young boy coming to terms with being gay amid a civil war in 1970s Sri Lanka. Cancelling the film because the cast was not entirely Sri Lankan is myopic when one considers the impact it is continuing to make with South Asian families, where the topics of gender, identity and homosexuality can still be considered taboo. 

Representation done right: Kim’s Convenience

Of course, as proud Torontonians, we gushed about Kim’s Convenience and what a good job that show did to represent Toronto (not masquerading as NYC, for a change), Koreans, Canadians and immigrants in general. And most importantly, on national, mainstream network television. The reality is that while we are seeing more marginalized talent in films and TV, the playing field is not level. The abrupt cancellation of a brilliant show such as Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj makes little sense, nor does the complete shut-out of Michaela Cole’s I May Destroy You from Golden Globes nominations. 

The diversity issue on screen and in workplaces

Hollywood and corporate workplaces alike have had a historic lack of diversity. For too long, the token actors of colour have been relegated to roles such as the awkward exchange student, the terrorist, the IT person or the blink-and-you-miss-it bit part. Thanks to the work of stars like Mindy Kaling, Issa Rae, Riz Ahmed and Kumail Nanjiani, to name just a few, we are finally seeing shows that feature BIPOC in leading roles and fully fleshed out characters.

As allies, we need to bring people from underrepresented communities out of the fringes. And as marginalized people, we need to build allyship with other marginalized communities so when one of us shines, it is a collective step forward for BIPOC.

And of course, we talked about cancel culture. 

While the concept of holding people accountable for their actions has some good, the immediate jump to negativity without the option for dialogue can do a lot of harm. We talked about reframing cancel culture as consequence culture, where organizations and people are accountable for their actions, without being cancelled altogether, immediately.

Since ABCDEI is all about learning and unlearning, this is how we have unpacked the concepts we shared in episode 4 into simple and actionable ideas:

  1. Paint the full picture. Whether on set or at work, give BIPOC space to be their full selves, so they don’t just check a box in a cast or workplace. The latter is tokenism. Being BIPOC or gay or in a wheelchair is only one aspect of someone’s identity. Do the work to complete the picture.
  2. Level the playing field. Marginalized talent often must work twice as hard for the same recognition that those with privilege receive. If you want to be an ally, sponsor those who haven’t had as much opportunity to have their moment. And advocate for equity so that the bar for participation can be scaled to accommodate and build up atypical talent. 
  3. Build allyship among the marginalized. BIPOC is not a monolith, just as LGBTQS2+ isn’t. As BIPOC, we  need to build community in the margins so we can lift each other up in the journey ahead to real change.

If you have found yourself wanting to unlearn but wondering where to even begin, or if you have a guest idea on the topic, get in touch. Drop us a line at hello@abcdei.ca.

Here in the fringes and the mainstream,

Rohini + Susan

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