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A massive new study looks at faith in film and TV

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A massive new study about faith as portrayed on screen is getting attention in Hollywood and beyond. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: There was a time when movies about people of faith were wildly popular.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LILIES OF THE FIELD")

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Homer) Amen.

ULABY: When the movie "Lilies Of The Field" came out in 1963, it got dozens of award nominations, including a Best Actor Oscar for Sidney Poitier. Even a Hollywood musical like "Fiddler On The Roof" was, for many non-Jews, a chance to feel part of Shabbat.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

TOPOL AND NORMA CRANE: (As characters, singing) May the Lord protect and defend you.

ULABY: But religious characters on screen have become oversimplified. That's according to the Faith and Media Initiative. Its new study surveyed 10,000 people in 11 countries.

BROOKE ZAUGG: The purpose of the study wasn't to make a case that we want a bunch of religious cinema.

ULABY: Brooke Zaugg, the initiative's director, says many of the study's religious respondents felt their spiritual side was represented more poorly than even their race or gender.

ZAUGG: It was sensationalized or misrepresented, and so they felt like they were not seen.

ULABY: Or if they were, it was negative. Survey respondents from all faiths said Christians generally came off the best, although occasionally seen as homophobic, Jews sometimes closed-minded or racist. But no one fared worse than Muslims.

ZAUGG: It said they are represented as violent, close-minded, misogynistic, malicious, homophobic and racist. The list was extremely long. It wasn't one or two things, it was all the things.

ULABY: A non-stereotypical TV show such as "Ramy" on Hulu is an exception. One character is a thoughtful sheikh.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAMY")

MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Sheikh Malik) By the grace of Allah, I found my teacher. She taught me that Islam was like an orange.

ULABY: Stories like this, says Brooke Zaugg, can teach us to better understand our neighbors.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.