Reel Bad Arabs

March 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People is a book by media critic Jack Shaheen, surveying more than 900 film appearances of “Arab” characters. It was then made into a documentary, produced in 2004. And it is still relevant today. It chronicles 40 years of Arab demonisation on screen.  We shouldn’t underestimate the power of images and narratives, and how they shape our opinions. It certainly got worse after September 11, 2001 and the War in Iraq in 2003. Political leaders and decision makers taking advantage of the intersection between politics and popular culture.

Hollywood is obsessed with “the three Bs” — belly dancers, billionaire sheiks and bombers — in a largely unchallenged vilification of Middle Easterners here and abroad.

“In every movie they make, every time an Arab utters the word Allah? Something blows up,” says Eyad Zahra.

Shaheen: ” If Arab men are not presented as buffoons, or smarmy carpet-dealers, or decadent sheiks (and oh, how the oily sultans are smitten with the blond Western womens!), then they are basically your bug-eyed hijacker-bomber.

Shaheen: “The OPEC oil embargo, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis all conspired to cast the Arab as film villain beginning in the 1970s.” “We pray and we kill,” Shaheen says of the depiction. Like other stereotypes on film — of blacks, Jews, gays, Latinos, Native Americans — Arabs are now in the crosshairs.”

“The Arab serves as the ultimate outsider, the Other, who doesn’t pray to the same God, and who can be made to be less human,” says Shaheen, who argues that movies and TV shows do matter — that they shape public opinion at home and abroad.

>>> Read Cast of Villains in the Washington Post

The 1992 Disney cartoon Aladdin “recycled every old Hollywood stereotype of bad Arabs”, Shaheen said, citing the film’s line “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”

Shaheen’s documentary alluded to dozens of films, the worst of them being Delta Force [1986], where an American aircraft is hijacked by Palestinian terrorists who indiscriminately kill passengers; True Lies [1994], the Schwarzenegger action film where Middle Eastern terrorists steal nuclear weapons, and Rules of Engagement [2000], starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel Jackson, where Yemeni civilians, including women and children, conspire to fight against US Marines.

“The storytelling, almost by its nature is very cynical. So essentially the villain of the piece is whoever the villain on the planet is at that moment. Obviously the Russians were at one point, the Japanese were at another, the Germans were at another point.”

But Arab actors trying to make it in Hollywood complain that it is a constant challenge not to get typecast in the role of a terrorist or ruffian. […] Bashar Da’as, a Palestinian actor looking for work in Los Angeles, says he has been offered many roles to play a terrorist by big production houses but virtually nothing else. “In other auditions, they wanted me to do something that I knew in my heart would harm people,” Da’as explained. […] “They said the character fitted me precisely. But he conspires with Nazi groups, which is nonsense. I mean a Muslim extremist working with a Nazi group? […]” Da’as rejected the offer.

>>> Read Bid to unravel ‘bad Arab’ cliche on Al Jazeera

Inspired by Reel Bad Arabs, Arab-American artist and filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum created Planet of the Arabs:  a 9 mns “trailer-esque montage spectacle of Hollywood’s relentless vilification and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims”.


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