British Muslim actor and rapper Riz Ahmed is no stranger to politics, with his 2010 breakout film Four Lions proving one of the starting points of his activism, taking the darkest topics (that of actual terrorism) and making them hilarious. Directed by UK comedy legend Chris Morris (a master satirist) and written by Succession creator Jesse Armstrong, Four Lions is a sitcom-style comedy about terrorists in the UK (specifically, the city of Sheffield) and their bumbling antics as they go about planning political destruction in the most ridiculous way possible. It’s a farce raises countless questions on the mass perception of everyday Muslims, jihadists, and the War on Terror all in one.
Comedies have certainly been made on controversial topics before. However, even today, terrorism and acts of war seem like strong red flags if its creators don’t want to contend with the maelstrom of backlash that will certainly follow. This didn’t stop Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator from making fun of Hitler’s regime from the perspective of the regime itself when World War II was still in full swing. This isn’t an isolated incident, with Ernst Lubitsch’s massively underrated To Be or Not to Be also poking fun at the Third Reich in spite of the controversy. It’s important to note, however, that Chaplin would later state that he wouldn’t have made the film if he had known about the severity of Hitler’s concentration camps. But whether it’s M*A*S*H* with its Korean-war commentary or Heathers which satirizes teen suicide, the trend of deriving comedy from another’s misfortune seemingly never dies. However, in the case of Four Lions, Morris’s intentions were to be as authentic as they were controversial.
‘Four Lions’ Tries to Unravel the Root Cause of Radicalism
Chris Morris states that the genesis of the idea came from reading about a botched terrorist operation, in which a group of terrorists intended to take down an American warship off the coast of Yemen, only for their launchers to sink to the ocean floor. Morris credits this incident with giving him an insight into the “human frailty” behind acts of terrorism, and how many of them must have been mucked up as a result of comedy’s greatest asset: human error. The genius of Four Lions lies in the fact that it subverts expectations. While the common perception of a terrorist in the West is a maniacal, scheming, finger-tenting mastermind hellbent on eradicating the West, Morris depicts the reality, which is that these misguided fools act just like you and your mates do.
In one of the earlier scenes of the film, Barry (Nigel Lindsay) speaks at a debate regarding Islam’s moderation and progress, in which he challenges the expectations for Muslims set forth by some of the whiter members of the panel. He criticizes the view that “a good Muslim [should] always keep [their] mouth shut,” highlighting the complacency expected from marginalized groups whose radicals engage in acts of terror. Audience member Hassan (Arsher Ali) reinforces the point by vocalizing “Why shouldn’t I be a bomber if you treat me like one?” The sequence ends with an admittedly hilarious freestyle rap, followed by a prank suicide bombing, the likes of which prove the point Morris is trying to make. Muslims live under constant fear that speaking out against anything will see them labeled a radical. The only way to win in the Western world is through acquiescing to Western interventionism, regardless of the hidden cost.
‘Four Lions’ Shows That Pacifist Muslims Suffer for the Crimes of Others
According to Vice, having initially turned down the role after being told it was “career suicide,” Ahmed only accepted upon realizing that Morris’s knowledge of street-level British Muslim life was greater than his own. Importantly, Morris didn’t simply research fundamentalism or investigate the characters behind actual terrorist attacks but immersed himself to the extent that he could portray a wider tableau of Muslim peoples and those who may innocently get caught in the crossfire between stupidity and militarism. The frustration behind Ahmed’s character Omar is depicted in an encounter with his pacifist brother, who urges Omar not to do anything violent. Omar responds by condemning both his brother’s conservatism and his inaction, mocking him for keeping his wife in a small room and chasing him out the door with water guns.
What’s ultimately ironic is that Omar’s brother is the one who’s suspected and punished for Omar’s terrorist attack, ironically proving Omar’s point. While the powers that be are deathly afraid of Muslims speaking out for greater representation or political power, it’s the ones who “keep their mouths shut” and “peacefully go about their day” that are the first to come under fire in the wake of terrorist acts. It showcases, on the one hand, the failures of the state, while on the other reinforces a radical’s disillusionment with their people’s passivity. One has to look only as far as the Riz Test to realize that when the problem is that all that’s offered is the prospect of living for the convenience of the white majority, radicalism offers an extreme, albeit misguided solution.
‘Four Lions’ Immerses Itself in the Real World
One of the most brilliant ways that Morris and Armstrong subvert expectations throughout their tonal tour de force of a script is through the inclusion of Western media, especially when they’re used by the bumbling terrorists for the sake of their planned attack. Whether it’s Barry’s suggestion to bomb a mosque in an attempt to radicalize Muslims or Faisal’s (Adeel Akhtar) attempts to train crows to carry bombs, the majority of the humor from Four Lions comes from the increasingly idiotic ways these characters plan to make their explosive statement. The method that they settle on: bomb the London Marathon and conceal the bombs within mascot costumes. By the end of it, a Ninja Turtle, an ostrich, and the Honey Monster (a mascot for a popular UK brand of cereal) are running around London, reconciling with the morality of their actions as they flee from police officers hot on their tail.
The genius in this decision is twofold. On the one hand, Morris is subverting the stereotypes of terrorists by clothing them as icons of children’s media. In doing this, he’s also stating that these radicalized terrorists are bred from the same childhood influences as those of the Western world. The use of popular media (specifically that of children) is a motif that runs throughout to poke fun at the idiocy of terrorism. For example, in need of a way to communicate outside surveilled channels, they contact one another through Puffin Party (a fictional Club Penguin rip-off). On their way to the destination of their suicide bombing, the group joyously listen to Toploader’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” excitedly belting as if they were on their way to their best friend’s wedding. It humanizes the perpetrators behind such radical actions and emphasizes the childish nature of their antics.
There’s no questioning the fact that Four Lions isn’t for everyone. It’s a sense of humor similar to the one found in the best episodes of Trailer Park Boys, in which the fact that such a miserable situation exists is more than enough reason to make fun of it. However, even for those who aren’t fans of this particular brand of schadenfreude, Four Lions proves more than just a comedy through its thoughtful and incredibly well-researched study of not just terrorism, but our perception of it. In ridiculing the terrorists, it humanizes them, and in humanizing them, it forces us to look past a group’s malicious intentions to start searching for the root cause.