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Something is changing on American television and online streaming services. There are more Muslim characters and more nuanced portrayals of Muslim communities. NPR's Leila Fadel starts this story on set in Los Angeles.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It's one of the last days of taping for a new Web series called "East Of La Brea."
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Rolling, rolling. Quiet, please.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let me know when you're (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Good.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And action.
FADEL: It's a show about being in your 20s and figuring out life. And it's told through two main characters, roommates who are Muslim. But that's not the entirety of their storylines, says Sameer Gardezi, the creator of the show. It's about...
SAMEER GARDEZI: Paying rent, you know, having a dead-end job, having issues with, you know, your family life, going to a family...
FADEL: It's the first project from Powderkeg, the company founded by director, writer and actor Paul Feig, known for films like "Bridesmaids" and the recent "Ghostbusters." "East Of La Brea" follows the friendship of two women, a black Muslim and a Bangladeshi-American Muslim, in gentrifying Los Angeles. Gardezi says it's one American Muslim story.
GARDEZI: There's so many different versions. And my hope would be that everyone gets a shot to tell their version of a Muslim-American story so it doesn't feel like - oh, this is the one Muslim show that needs to make it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: All the way back.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: All the way back, OK.
FADEL: We head to the next location for taping, an LA mosque. The scene deals with racism black Muslims sometimes face within Muslim communities. The character Aisha Hassan, played by Geffri Maya, is praying when her phone starts ringing with a song like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUCCI GANG")
LIL PUMP: (Rapping) Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang...
FADEL: The director tells the other actors how to react.
SAMANTHA BAILEY: And ladies, look at her a little shady.
FADEL: In the next scene, a woman scolds Hassan, assuming she's a recent convert, and tells her her prayer doesn't count.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Sister, we have prayer lessons every Thursday morning - help converts with salat.
FADEL: It's something that happens, an immigrant Muslim assuming she knows better. And it's one way the show explores identity. And "East Of La Brea" creator Sameer Gardezi says he's glad there are more projects involving Muslims. But he says there isn't going to be one breakout moment. But hopefully, there will be many moments. And the more stuff that's out there - even the bad stuff - the better.
GARDEZI: That is a flexibility and a privilege that I think white communities have, is that they're allowed to fail in Hollywood. And no one really bats an eye. It's like - oh, it's OK. You can jump back up. And here, let's throw millions of dollars again for you to do your next project. So that's the point that we have to get to.
FADEL: It's a struggle a lot of communities of color and minorities face in Hollywood. The 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA found that despite progress, minorities are still underrepresented in key jobs, from lead actors to directors to writers. Right now, there's an appetite for shows about Muslims. In part, it's because Muslim writers like Gardezi, who's written on "Modern Family" and "Outsourced," are creating their own content. And there's support for it. He got a grant from Pop Culture Collaborative to create the series. And some of the interest is Hollywood reacting to anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment from Donald Trump. After he announced his candidacy in 2015, The Hollywood bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council got a lot more popular.
SUE OBEIDI: The phones were ringing off the hook.
FADEL: That's Sue Obeidi. She leads the bureau and consults with studios and production companies on creating more authentic Muslim characters.
OBEIDI: We're up against decades of storytelling that is inaccurate many times, that is racist often and very stereotypical.
FADEL: Among the tropes, women are chattel and don't have identities or Muslims only portrayed as the gas station owner or the taxi driver. Obeidi says it's an uphill battle. But today, the list of characters on mainstream television is longer than she's ever seen.
OBEIDI: A Muslim surgeon on "Grey's Anatomy," a superhero on "DC's Legends Of Tomorrow," a LGBTQ hijabi Muslim on "The Bold Type," a pork-loving, alcohol-drinking Muslim on "Master Of None."
FADEL: When writers come to her for advice, Obeidi reminds them that these Muslim characters might be the only Muslims some people ever meet. She tries to help them get the language right, like scripts that use the term Allahu akbar, which means God is great.
OBEIDI: So you've seen many TV and film projects that have Allahu akbar being used in very violent scenes.
FADEL: Obeidi negotiates with studios to try to get them to change it, translate it or offset it with happy scenes, like saying God is great at a wedding or a dinner party because for Muslims, it's a beautiful phrase portrayed as ugly.
OBEIDI: You know, so someone hears Allahu akbar when they're dining out. And all of a sudden, you know, they're calling 911 because they think a family is doing something bad when all they're saying is God, that was a damn good meal - Allahu akbar.
FADEL: And Obeidi is excited by many of the projects now being written by and about Muslims for large audiences. There's Maysoon Zayid, a Palestinian-American comic with cerebral palsy, writing an autobiographical sitcom for ABC; Mo Amer, a comic with a recent Netflix special, and Ramy Youssef, who I met on a night he's headlining at the Hollywood Improv. He jokes about how, in LA, suddenly people think Islam is cool.
RAMY YOUSSEF: Like, I was at a juice shop. I was just, like, getting some juices and talking to this woman. And I'm telling her about Ramadan. And, you know, she works there. And she's like, oh, my God. That sounds so - I'm going to do it this weekend.
YOUSSEF: She was like - she said it like it was Coachella.
FADEL: The New Jersey native is following in the path of many comics who've gone from stand-up to sitcom, like Seinfeld. Ramy Youssef is writing 10 episodes of a show called "Ramy" for Hulu. It will reflect who Youssef is, an Egyptian-American, a practicing Muslim, who, like most people, wrestles with trying to be good. After a stand-up performance, he jokes about how he and his friends approach religion a little like a menu.
YOUSSEF: We call it Allah carte, where we're all kind of just picking and choosing, like - well, this is my deal with God.
FADEL: He hopes "Ramy" reflects how all kinds of people have their deal with God.
YOUSSEF: I like to get dark. I like to get weird. I like to get uncomfortable. And I feel like when an immigrant family or when a family that is maybe, you know, a group that's not well-represented - when people try and put them on television, they go out of their way to make them look amazing and look perfect.
FADEL: His show won't do that.
YOUSSEF: I just was really excited about the idea of making Muslims look imperfect and not create something that was like some, you know, PR thing but create something that was, you know, really just a realistic portrayal of what we go through, how we are.
FADEL: Youssef says that people connect with others when they see their flaws, not when they're a hero, a villain or exactly like everyone else.
Leila Fadel, NPR News, Los Angeles.
(PHILANTHROPE, OMAURE AND FLITZ AND SUPPE'S "AY")
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