I have to admit when I saw Riz Ahmed’s Oscar-winning short film, The Long Goodbye, I wasn’t in love. It is intense. It is poignant. And it was clearly made my top-tier talent. But it felt like a music video, which, when you consider that it was released in tandem with Ahmed’s album of the same name, it literally was. The British Pakistani actor and rapper plays the central character of a joyful family whose day is interrupted by a right-wing march run amok. Militants storm their house, round them up, and shoot Ahmed as he runs to save a child. His rap monologue ends the 12-minute short film, as he lies on the road.
No doubt the film is powerful. Full stop. But last night, I found Ahmed’s walk down the red carpet at the Met Gala even more powerful. And so impressive. And I fell in love with the artist. Among the nation’s cultural elite, at fashion’s biggest night, Ahmed wore the uniform of a laborer — a blue suit with a white tank-top, chain, and tall boots. The theme of the evening was “Gilded Glamour,” a call for the wealthiest among us to show off, flaunt their riches, and parade their excess. And they did. Everyone — from Blake Lively to Sarah Jessica Parker to Kim Kardashian — stepped out in their largest and loudest looks. (Tom Ford abstained because he doesn’t like themes.) But Ahmed brought a much-needed reality check: the Gilded Age was powered by workers.
In a time of massive economic pain, when 64% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck and the majority of the country is still feeling the financial destruction of the pandemic, after billionaires got $1.2T richer as 1M American died, there is nothing more tone deaf than the Met and Vanity Fair celebrating the Gilded Age, a period of our history in the late 1800s (approximately 1870–1900) when wealth disparity was at its highest — a period our current economy in 2022 is now mirroring. Yes, it was a time of “unprecedented” economic growth, but 130 years after the Gilded Age, we have learned the hard way that economic growth does not mean equitable outcomes, dignified wages or wealth distribution, or an uptick in happiness — the very goal defined in our founding documents. Because we are wealthy does not mean we are healthy.
That the Met Gala would come out of a two-year hiatus celebrating a period of excess is bizarre and in awful taste. True, most Americans don’t care about the Met Gala and are not watching the red carpet. But if they were, at least they got to see Ahmed’s answer — the simple costume of a worker — a sobering reminder the event needed to bring it back to Earth. Good for him for donning it. Fashion is always a statement, especially at the annual fashion prom that is the Met Gala. This was a powerful one.