The Sound of Metal and representation in modern cinema

Nile Sharma looks at the importance of South Asian representation in The Sound of Metal and modern cinema

Nile Sharma
23rd April 2021
Image credit: IMDb
Darius Marder opens The Sound of Metal with a slow push-in of Riz Ahmed poised behind a drumkit, hair bleached and body emblazoned chaotically with tattoos, whilst distorted guitar feedback hums in the background.

In an Oscar-nominated performance, Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, an ex-addict now living co-dependently with girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) and playing music together as two-piece metal band “Blackgammon”. As the film unfolds and Ruben’s identity is stripped from him with the loss of his hearing, Marder’s existential film follows this complicated, flawed character as he struggles with a sudden loss of control that he has spent years creating, requiring him to rebuild himself in a deaf community under the guidance of mentor Joe (Paul Raci).

Marder’s film is a captivating character-piece and a compassionate depiction of deafness as a culture rather than a disability. However, a remarkably under-investigated facet of The Sound of Metal is the lack of commentary on Ahmed’s ethnicity. Rather than being manoeuvred to form Ruben’s personality or identity, Ahmed’s race is left off-screen and he is provided with the opportunity to play a gritty three-dimensional character with shortcomings, complex interiority and an authentic character arc largely reserved for white actors in film. The diverse casting of The Sound of Metal is more radical than it is has been credited with given the chequered history of cinematic representation up until this moment.

The speed of progress in the Hollywood landscape has often been frustratingly glacial and the depth of characterisation prone to caricature, especially for actors of South Asian descent

To an extent, 21st century cinema has admittedly become an increasingly multicultural landscape, with recent progress manifesting in all-Black ensemble behemoth Black Panther (2017) and greater awards representation for people of colour as demonstrated in this year’s diverse Academy Awards acting categories. However, the speed of progress in the Hollywood landscape has often been frustratingly glacial and the depth of characterisation prone to caricature, especially for actors of South Asian descent.

The critical and commercial success of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire initiated a series of western films involving India, with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) seeing a litany of English “expats” undergoing personal self-discovery whilst residing in Dev Patel’s derelict hotel. Despite being London-born, Patel is cast as the unthreatening and plucky hotel manager complete with exaggerated Indian accent who helps to satisfy the needs of his white residents and ends the film working in partnership with ex-racist Maggie Smith.

Image credit: IMDb

Hollywood vehicles set in the East, which similarly offer one-note ethnic characterisation and a checklist of national clichés are numerous, with examples ranging from Wes Anderson’s naval-gazing The Darjeeling Limited (2007) to featherweight Disney offerings like Million Dollar Arm (2014). The most egregious issue with Marigold Hotel and its forgotten sequel, however, lies with the casting of a capable and known British Asian actor as the blandly comedic simpleton in the background of a film more interested in the trite arcs of the newly enlightened geriatric characters. Whilst not as explicitly offensive as historical portrayals of terrorists and tech workers (not including Chris Morris’ hilarious and nuanced 2010 offering, Four Lions) the film is representative of the drought of substantial character roles provided in western cinema.

The cinematic appetite for South Asian stereotypes is surprising given the popularity and success achieved closer to the turn of the century in films such as East is East (1999) and Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it like Beckham (2002). These films excelled in capturing the cultural challenges faced by South Asian families in Britain, particularly focusing on the dynamics between second-generation youths and the expectations of their overbearing parents. Bend it like Beckham was especially successful in authentically evoking the experiences of immigrants and their families, packaging them into crowd-pleasing entertainment that is easily translatable for non-Asian audiences, while also providing rich and multi-faceted female characters, who are commonly marginalised in film.

Image credit: IMDb

In presenting universal themes and familiar cinematic tropes through a specifically ethnic lens, these films were vital, not only as cultural celebrations, but also for marking progressions in Asian representation, making subsequent retrograde portrayals even more disappointing. Despite their importance, the on-screen depth has been limited to niche, domestic environments in which the characters were largely defined by their racial identity and the difficulties they face because of this.

Whilst these are important stories that are not independently problematic, given the exploration of similar themes and settings as recently as 2019 in Blinded By the Light (also directed by Gurinder Chadha), there is a frustrating dependence on family-based culture clash dramadies to provide any form of complexity.

With almost every frame in The Sound of Metal centred on Ruben, much of the film’s success is dependent on Ahmed’s subtle, captivating and transformative work and given the embarrassing lack of substantial characters for South Asian performers in western cinema his casting represents a far more significant moment than is at first appreciable.

The Sound of Metal instead provides Ahmed with a role entirely detached from his ethnicity, undefined by racial ties or cultural history

Although some recent films have sought diverse ensemble casts such as The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020), these attempts have been a more self-conscious attempt at “colour-blind casting” in which audience expectations have been intentionally toyed with through the anachronistic use of BAME actors (including Dev Patel) in typically European roles. The Sound of Metal instead provides Ahmed with a role entirely detached from his ethnicity, undefined by racial ties or cultural history, instead being characterised by his contradictions, mistakes, and ultimately his very human determination to find peace in the face of calamity.

Whilst cultural progression cannot rest on a single film or role, given its success The Sound of Metal is an exciting step forward for South Asian representation and hopefully serves as a catalyst for further separation between a performer’s ethnicity and the quality of roles they are provided with.

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