By JONATHAN TILOVE
October 10, 2001
c.2001 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Well before the awful events of Sept. 11, the American people had grown accustomed to seeing Arab terrorists intent on slaughtering innocents on American soil, or at any rate on the American screen.
In the 1977 film “Black Sunday,” Palestinians in a blimp try to blow up the Super Bowl. In “True Lies,” in 1994, Arnold Schwarzenegger stops the “Crimson Jihad” from nuking American cities.
In the 1996 release “Executive Decision,” Palestinians hijack a plane headed for Washington intent on dumping enough nerve gas to depopulate the East Coast. In “The Siege,” which came out in 1998, Arab immigrants and Arab-Americans work hand-in-hand to kill more than 700 New Yorkers, leading to martial law and the rounding up of Arab-Americans into detention camps.
Throughout the history of American film, Arabs have played the villain, the enemy, the other _ from the medieval primitive, to the greedy OPEC sheik in kaffiyeh and Ray-Bans, to, for the last quarter century, the crazed terrorist.
As Americans grapple with terrorist attacks perpetrated by Arabs, their thinking cannot help but be conditioned by a lifetime of negative stereotypes of Arabs in the movies and other popular culture, almost entirely unleavened by alternative positive images. And, because of Hollywood’s global reach, these images profoundly inform not only how Americans view the Arab world and Arab-Americans, but how the peoples of the Middle East view America, and even how they see themselves.
In the days since Sept. 11, many Americans have been asking themselves, “Why do they hate us?” It is the mirror image of the question that millions of Middle Easterners must have asked themselves across decades of watching Hollywood movies in which audiences are induced to cheer when the Arab dies.
“It is unrelenting,” said Jack Shaheen.“It is a gospel of hate which continues to pervade psyches. It is very dangerous.” Shaheen, professor emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University, is the author of “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,” and “The TV Arab.”
Randall Miller, a historian at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and the co-author of “Ethnic and Racial Images in American Film and Television,” said Arabs are now treated in American popular culture much like American Indians once were _ “as the despised, the other” and as part of an “undifferentiated mass.” Americans are no more able to distinguish a Syrian from a Saudi than they were able to tell a Shoshone from a Sioux.
In “Reel Bad Arabs,” Shaheen reviewed more than 900 Hollywood movies and found ample of evidence of what he describes as the American “cinema’s systematic, pervasive and unapologetic degradation and dehumanization of a people.” Arab men are presented as filthy, sneaky, savage, stupid, slimy and greedy. Arab women have been depicted along what Shaheen describes as a continuum of “B” images _ bosomy bellydancers, beasts of burden, bundles of black.
Shaheen’s “worst list” includes classy movies like “The Black Stallion,” and “Network,” in which what the character Howard Beale is “mad as hell” about is a potential Arab takeover of the television network he works for. It includes trashy movies like “Hollywood Hot Tubs 2: Educating Crystal,” and popular confections like “Back to the Future.” And it includes those powerhouse movies in which the Arab is Public Enemy No. 1 _ movies like “The Delta Force,” “True Lies,” “Navy SEALS,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and “Rules of Engagement,” the 2000 release that Shaheen considers “probably the most racist movie ever made.”
By Shaheen’s count, there were 18 Hollywood movies between “Black Sunday” in 1997 and “The Siege” in 1998 that showed Arab Muslims “invading America and liquidating innocents.”
While audiences flocked to these movies, some critics were left uneasy.
“The World Trade Center was blown up in real life (in 1993), not in a thriller,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of “The Siege.” “Given how vulnerable our cities are to terrorism, and how vulnerable Arab-Americans are to defamation, was this movie really necessary?”
Northwestern University film scholar Lester Friedman said these sorts of Hollywood action thrillers require simple heroes and villains and, as Nazis receded into the distance and the Berlin Wall fell, “they sort of ran out of villains.”
Daniel Mandel, who critiqued the critique of Arab and Muslim images on the silver screen in the spring edition of Middle East Quarterly, said the attack on the use of Arabs and Muslims as the heavies in these thrillers is overdone.
“The issue of Middle Eastern terrorism,” said Mandel, who is a research associate in history at the University of Melbourne in Australia. “To the contrary, the plots of films like `Executive Decision’ and `The Siege’ involve scenarios of mass slaughter that look altogether tame when juxtaposed with what actually occurred on Sept. 11.”
In his piece, Mandel does not suggest that “Rules of Engagement” was a good movie, but he thinks the notion that the setup of the plot was so preposterous as to be offensive is wrong. In the movie, a Marine colonel played by Samuel L. Jackson orders his troops to open fire on demonstrators laying siege to the American embassy in Yemen. They kill 83 civilians, but the colonel is subsequently acquitted at his court martial, and the audience comes to see the civilians not as innocents but, down even to the doe-eyed little crippled girl, as armed assailants. Mandel contends that some of the movies, like “The Siege,” took pains to distinguish good from bad Arabs, and that “True Lies” and “Executive Decision” would simply not have worked had a band of Buddhists or Scandinavian Lutherans been substituted for Palestinians Muslims as the bad guys.
Where Shaheen and Mandel agree, though, is that Arabs and Arab-Americans have a legitimate complaint that there is almost nothing on movie screens to counterbalance these negative images.
Shaheen said only 18 movies in the history of American cinema have Arab-American characters, and in only two is the Arab-American character the protagonist _ “Anna Ascends,” a lost 1922 movie about a Syrian immigrant, and “The Kitchen,” a recent film about Egyptian Americans that occasionally shows up on the Independent Film Channel.
And, by Shaheen’s count, there have been only three good Arab-Americans in TV history _ Klinger, the cross-dressing soldier on “M-A-S-H” played as an Arab-American by the Arab-American actor Jamie Farr, and Danny Thomas and his Uncle Tonoose on Thomas’ sitcom, “Make Room for Daddy,” which aired from 1953 to 1964. Thomas’ wife on the show was not Arab, and his real-life daughter, Marlo, did not play “That Girl” as an Arab-American character.
Heroes and villains aside, Shireen Ghareeb said there is simply an absence of Arabs as normal people in American cinema. Ghareeb, the assistant director of Filmfest DC, is running an Arab film festival two weekends in October in Washington showing films made in Arab countries in which regular Arab folks, without exaggerated features and traditional dress, interact with their spouses, their children and everyday life.
Even in the Middle East, there are few such images in cinema to overcome the overwhelming power of the stockpile of negative images emanating from Hollywood, according to Ramez Maluf, director of the Beirut Institute for Media Arts at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.
“You cannot defeat an image by arguing against it,” said Maluf. The institute is hosting an international conference on Arab stereotyping in November.
Absent Arab and other filmmakers providing more alternative images, Maluf said, the consequence can be complex and disturbing. Maluf’s wife teaches at the American Community School in Beirut and in the aftermath of Sept. 11, some Arab-American students there reacted that the United States deserved it.
Maluf believes that they have grown so accustomed to seeing the Arab as villain that they have been forced to choose between denying their Arabness, or identifying in some way with the villains.
The power of American film shows up in many ways. Among those at his conference on stereotyping, Maluf said, will be a British scholar from the United Arab Emirates who will talk about how the Bedouin people are looking to Hollywood images to provide them with a collective self-identity.
In a 1998 piece in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, entitled “Bruce Willis versus Bin Laden,” the Egyptian journalist Tarek Atia, who was born on the banks of the Nile and brought up in the Washington suburbs, wrote, “The evidence on the ground seems to indicate that we as Egyptians have also, for the most part, completely bought into this stereotyping of Muslims. In other words, whenever we see someone with a beard or a galabiya (traditional gown) we immediately, and without question, label them a fundamentalist.”
In his piece, Atia saw the negative stereotyping of Islam being complemented by a searching in Hollywood in recent years for spiritual themes, as if to deny claims of American moral degeneracy.
Combine these two trends and “what do you have?” Atia wrote. “A great formula for a 21st century rerun of the crusades.”