LIANE HANSEN, host:
On television and in movies, Muslims are often portrayed as bad guys -terrorists, for example, in the Fox TV series "24" or the film "The Siege." The Muslim Public Affairs Council has been working with Hollywood studios for years to foster more accurate portrayals. The council recently adopted a new tactic -teaching Muslim Americans how to become Hollywood screenwriters.
From member station KPCC, Alex Cohen has the story.
ALEX COHEN: It's Saturday morning and several dozen Muslims are gathered in a college classroom in L.A. There are men and women, young and old, U.S.-born and immigrants, but they all have a common dream - to break into show business.
Unidentified Woman: Salaam Alaikum, everybody. Good morning, hello. We have today T.S. Cook, Tom Cook, who is a veteran writer for television, movies and the theater, as well.
COHEN: Sitting at the back of the room is Marium Mohiuddin of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the group hosting this workshop. She says in the past they've had some success serving as consultants to non-Muslim writers and producers at Hollywood studios. But realistic depictions of Muslims, both positive and negative, are still rare, she says.
Ms. MARIUM MOHIUDDIN (Muslim Public Affairs Council): The Muslim-American community is kind of at that point. We're like, OK, we want these stories to be told; you're not telling it. So, we have to do it.
COHEN: So, they've enlisted insiders, like Oscar-nominated Tom Cook, to teach courses specifically tailored to Muslims.
Mr. TOM COOK (Writer): Because I've always thought of writers as outsiders, and who's more of an outsider in modern day America than Muslims?
COHEN: Among those taking notes from the veteran writer was Pakistani-born Avais Chughtai.
Mr. AVAIS CHUGHTAI: One of the things Tom Cook said: what the Hollywood industry likes is experiences, you know, the personal experiences. But it's up to us to actually go and write those experiences and share them.
COHEN: The workshops also brought in agents and executives who explained how to turn those experiences into scripts that actually get made, which, as Qasim Basir can attest, is no small feat. Basir wrote and directed the recent feature film "MOOZ-lum" - that's M-O-O-Z-L-U-M. It's a semi-autobiographical tale of a young African-American who struggles with the challenges of being raised Muslim.
(Soundbite of movie, "MOOZ-lum")
Unidentified Woman #2 (Actress): (as character) Tariq Ma...
Mr. EVAN ROSS (Actor): (as Tariq) Mahdi. It's Tariq Mahdi.
Unidentified Woman #2: There's no U-E after the Q.
Mr. ROSS: That's not how you spell it.
Unidentified Woman #2: Well, that's correct English.
Mr. ROSS: Well, it's not an English name.
Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) It's a Muslim name.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COHEN: Finding financing for "MOOZ-lum" was a real challenge, says director Qasim Basir. Hollywood executives didn't quite know what to do with a film about African-Americans who are also Muslims.
Mr. BASIR: Because we know how to sell "Big Momma's House 4," you know, we know how to sell the Tyler Perry movies. But this here, who's the audience for this?
COHEN: So far, "MOOZ-lum" has played well with Muslim audiences, but Basir hopes that the film will find success with non-Muslim moviegoers, too. And not just for commercial reasons - the filmmaker says he wants to improve the impression many Americans have of people like him.
Mr. BASIR: I am seeing a level of discrimination in this country that I have never seen in my life.
Ms. MOHIUDDIN: If all you see is bad, bad, bad, then how are you ever going to tell the American community, don't worry, you're fine, your Muslim neighbor is not going to do anything to you?
COHEN: Marium Mohiuddin of the Muslim Public Affairs Council says it's easy to see why many Americans would fear Muslims when the only real exposure they get to Islamic life comes from the media.
But could TV shows and films actually have the power to curb prejudice? There is some precedence, says Diane Winston, who specializes in religion and media at the University of Southern California.
Ms. DIANE WINSTON (University of Southern California): I have seen studies which suggest that American ideas about gays were changed by shows like "Will and Grace."
COHEN: Winston hopes these workshops will inspire writers to create the Muslim equivalent of "The Cosby Show" or a CSI detective who's just like other cops, but he has a prayer rug in his office.
Ms. WINSTON: Now more than ever, we need media representation to remind us that Muslims are our fellow citizens. That they are doctors, lawyers, policemen, teachers, just like the rest of us.
COHEN: The Muslim Public Affairs Council will be keeping its eyes open for such portrayals. Later this spring, it'll hold its annual version of the Golden Globes, an awards gala for the best depictions of Muslims in television and film.
For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen in Los Angeles.
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