Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People

Okay, so my fiance Tess is taking a Multicultural course as part of her masters program.  And an assignment was to watch this video......
The full video can be found here.....
Reel Bad Arabs

I watched it with her tonight and then, after coming home watched it again with a critical eye... here is my review.

The webpage accompanying Dr. Jack Shaheen’s “documentary” Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, states “By inspiring critical thinking about the social, political, and basic human consequences of leaving these Hollywood caricatures unexamined, the film challenges viewers to recognize the urgent need for counter-narratives….”

However, there is no critical thinking involved in the movie.  It is one sided and terribly biased.  At times it takes comedies and tries to illustrate that they are serious and at other times it negates the fact that Arab groups, individuals, and movements have proudly taken actions he considers
‘unfair stereotypes’.
Part I – Intro
First of all, inasmuch as this is an advertisement for a book Dr. Jack Shaheen (the “documentarian”) has written, there is obviously no objectivity.  It is for this reason he never addresses movies like The Kite Runner or Lawrence of Arabia that show Arabs is an even-handed light.
Only 24 seconds into the film, he begins equating Hollywood’s (Westerners’) views towards Arabs with those of the Nazi’s towards the Jews - an obviously ad hominem argument, a fallacy often referred to as “Playing the Nazi card” or “Reductio ad Hitlerum” – it makes all further contentions of
the “documentarian” suspect at best, but we must press on with an open mind.
He states that he has studied “more than 1000 films” (2:05m) – the majority of those movies must have had white guys as the villain.  I would like to see the statistical evidence of how often an Arab is portrayed as the villain in contrast to a Westerner.  At the end of this review I will make a list of villains, and see what I can come up with.

The Myths of Arabland (3:21m)
The “documentarian” sets up a false premise that ‘all movies dealing with Arabs have a certain set of ‘fabricated’ images’ – ominous music, desert…etc.

1)      Ominous Music – Nearly all movies have ominous
music at one point or another

2)      “Desert, always the desert” – inasmuch as any movie dealing with Arabs most likely will take place in Egypt (97% desert) Saudi Arabia (80% desert) Syria (70% desert) Iraq (29% desert) Iran -formerly called “Persia”- (50% semi-arid or desert), odds are the events will
take place in a desert.

3)      “Desert as a threatening place” A desert can be considered nothing but a dangerous and threatening place.  Lack of water for a human is the quickest route to a non-violent death.  A desert by its very nature is life-threatening to humans. The description of the oasis is merely a geographical reality, not sure how it reflects on Arabs in general.
4)       “The palace that has the torture chamber in the basement… the Pasha sitting on his posh cushions with maidens surrounding him, none of the maidens please him, so they abduct a blonde woman from the west who doesn’t want to be seduced…”  It seems he is taking a very specific plot from a handful of movies and attributing it to ALL movies about Arabs – again,
the scarecrow argument.
5)      Belly dancing and scimitars – is he suggesting that there are no belly dancers in the Middle East, or that earlier Arabic warriors didn’t use scimitars – what would he prefer an Arab fighter to be shown with? An AK-47 assault rifle?

6)      Flying magic carpets and snake charmers – refer to #4.  I don’t believe every Arab
movie shows these, nor do the majority – yet he sets this up as a ‘typical’ view of Arabs.

(5:25m) “Aladdin
– the story of Aladdin was taken from the 14th Century SYRIAN fables “One Thousand and One Nights” – as dictated to Antoine Galland by Youhenna Diab “Hanna” – an Arab Syrian storyteller.  It’s hard to make an argument that Aladdin is a white man’s stereotype of Arabs when the original story came from an Arab.

“They cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” that line was removed after the movie was released - exactly FOR the cultural sensitivities he espouses.  In his desire to vilify the white producers, he neglects to mention this. The replaced line was, “where it's flat and immense, and the heat is intense."  The perception of Arabic ‘barbarism’ (a perfectly chosen word, since it comes from the Greek word for the Persians - meaning “not Greek” or “not civilized) is born of the fact that some Arabs will cut off the hand of a thief, they will not touch another with the left hand since that is the hand they wipe themselves with, Sharia law calls for the stoning death of an adulteress…etc..etc… actions that are, indeed, uncivilized to Western eyes.  It is not derogatory; it is a statement of fact.  To Western eyes, such actions are uncivilized and barbaric.

(6:40) “Arabs as buffoons” Referring to an obscure and disregarded movie such as “The Happy Hooker” does little to boost his argument, unless he’s also suggesting that a prostitute would be called into a Congressional hearing.  Hollywood “buffoons” come in all shapes and sizes, Gomer Pyle, Barney Fife, Larry the Cable Guy, Forrest Gump, Sancho Panza, Bill & Ted, Wayne & Garth…on and on.  At the same time, in any number of the movies he alludes to (and others he avoids) Arabs are seen as skillful and intelligent.  Although in movies such as The Siege, Kingdom of Heaven, or Black Hawk Down, those Arabs skills are used to a malevolent ends other movies, such as Lawrence of Arabia are not nearly so malicious.  Either way, it cannot be said that Arabs are consistently or exclusively shown as buffoons.
Portrayal of Arab Women

(8:00m) He then lists a number of movies in which women are treated as chattel (Cannonball Run2, Jewel of the Nile, Protocol, Never Say Never Again and Sahara).  Although few Hollywood movies are NOT built upon hyperbole, does this not reflect the FACT that women are considered “less” than men in Arab cultures.  The Sharia-following Taliban government in Afghanistan (pre-2003) forbade women from going to school, learning to read, leaving the house without a male escort, speaking to any man without her husband’s permission, wearing anything more revealing than a hijab or burka.  It maybe unpleasant to face such facts, but exaggerated or not, women are considered little more than animals in many Arab cultures.  Later in the movie he speaks of how Arab women of today are “exceeding in all professions”(12:50m).  Do I have to ask if that includes the Sharia-ruled countries where women are not allowed to go to school or learn how to read?  A clip of Indiana Jones is used to show how the image of Arabic women are “locked in the past”(13:42m), yet in this example, the movie is set in the 1930’s. A modern woman of any culture would be out of place.

Immediately following this tirade of how Arab women are not treated as intelligent, he bemoans how recently Arab women are ‘projected as a bomber… a terrorist.”  (13:15m) This recent change in perception has followed the recent inclusion of women as suicide bombers and jihadists.  You might say in this case art is imitating life, not visa-versa.

When he moves on to attacking “Father of the Bride 2” (10:58m) I realized how much he was relying on comedies.  This is hardly a credible argument for “typical treatment of Arabs” any more than Larry The Cable Guy is illustrative of all white guys, or any of Adam Sandler’s characters are “typical Jews”… the intent of some comedy is the absurdity of exaggeration.  All cultures are subject to the exaggerations of extreme when dealing with comedies.  Have you never seen a drunken Irishman used as a joke in a film?  Or a stupid white guy in an episode of Roseanne?  

“Gladiator” – slave traders who take Russell Crowe back to Rome are Arabs. (11:46m) 

Fact1 - Arab slave trade took place during the Roman Empire, and this scene, in all likelihood, is factually accurate.  When the author claims that Hollywood is “injecting Arabs” in movies “having nothing to do with the Middle East” (12:10m) he is showing an ignorance of the worldwide trade of the Roman Empire during the time.  The Romans traded with Arabs, and they traded with Arabs for slaves and gladiators.  The movie is factually correct.
Fact 2 – The only countries in the world in which slave trade still takes place on a wide scale are Sudan, Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Chad – all countries claiming the sanctioning of slavery by Islam.  Today, the country with the largest human slave trade is Indonesia – which is also the country most populated by Muslims.  To portray Arabs and Muslims as slave traders is not some conjured “slur” against Arabs and Muslims, only an accurate portrayal of their culture.
The Arab Threat: Mideast Politics & Hollywood (13:49m)

Dr. Shaheen tries to assert that Arabs have been singled out for the villain role in American movies - specifically Network (16:20m).  Seeing a culture, any culture as an enemy is nothing new, and it is not limited to Arabs.  During WWII, it was Germans or Japanese (Kelly’s Heroes, Von Ryan’s Express, Bridge On The River Kwai…) and during the Cold War it was the Russians (Red Dawn, Failsafe…) sometimes even our own government (Dr. Strangelove, War Games, The Day After…).  Movies often reflect their times and the threats (perceived or real) of the day.  And once again, for good measure, he associates Hollywood with the Nazi’s. (17:50m)
Terror, Inc: Demonizing Palestinians and Muslims
It’s almost laughable how Shaheen condemns the Hollywood association of Palestinians with Nazi’s when he, himself, just utilized that same comparison for his purpose not two minutes before.  He states how unfair it is that Palestinians are portrayed as a people who will kill “anyone, anywhere, at any time, for any reason.”  And yet, is it not the Palestinians who suicide bomb wedding receptions, public markets, and buses of tourists or take hostages of innocent Olympic athletes  – with no concern for the number of innocent women and children being killed?  Do they not, in fact, kill anyone, anywhere, and at any time?

The documentarian states Palestinians are portrayed as a people “intent on injuring all Americans.”  This would not only be the view of Hollywood/Washington DC but has been stated as much by the Palestinians themselves in countless “fatwas” or ‘calls to war.’  Many major Muslim, Arabic, and Palestinian groups have in fact called for just this sort of attack on America, its citizens, its interests, and its allies. This is not an invention of Hollywood. The torture scene from Death Before Dishonor (the drill into the hand) (22:36m)was confirmed to be an ‘approved’ Al Qaeda torture technique when an Al Qaeda handbook was retrieved in Iraq in May of 2007 ( “They burn an American flag…” (22:45m) Is he suggesting Arabs don’t do this?  They then “dispatch a suicide bomber to blow up [the American Embassy]” Again, is he suggesting these aren’t things Arab terrorists do?

His bringing up the obscure “Cannon Films” B-movie productions (23:17m)skirts very near the canard that America and Hollywood are ‘run by the Jews’ and was discomforting to hear, to say the least.  I had never heard of, much less seen, any of the films he portrayed as standards of American film work.

Hell Squad?  (23:39m) Really?  Along with The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington, maybe he’s making a case that really crappy, unwatched B-rate movies engage in Arabi-phobia.  Maybe he’s making a better case that he, personally, watches imbecilic, stupid, soft porn b-flicks and expects from them some deep interculturally significant message. Good Luck with that.

He claims that the movie “The Delta Force” is one of the ‘most popular and most racist’ films to project derogatory images of Arabs.  (23:50m) Unfortunately for him, the entire scenario of taking an airplane filled with people and then separating out the Jews for execution was not a Hollywood invention, but a scene repeated on numerous airplane hijackings during the 70’s including the Palestinian hijacking of Air France Flight 139 in 1976.  It was also why Leon Klinghoffer was singled out for execution during the taking of the Achille Lauro in 1985.  Rather than ‘propaganda’ as he claims, it is an accurate portrayal of what commonly took place when airline hijackings took place in the 70’s.

It is at this point that Dr. Shaheen tilts his hand to show us his underlying premise; he refers to Palestinians as a populace “under occupation.”  (25:14m) This is a short, but very telling phrase.  Saying that Palestinians are under occupation is to say the Israelis have no right to occupy Israel. 

He then goes on to ask why Hollywood cannot ‘humanize’ Palestinians the way we humanize Israelis. (25:37m) Perhaps because it is difficult to humanize any culture that condones and glorifies the wanton murder of innocents and children through suicide bombings.  Israelis, Americans, Europeans, and Westerners anguish-over and regret ANY collateral damage.  Military officers are punished and demoted if enough care is not taken to minimize civilian casualties (often at the expense of our own soldiers’ lives).  The Arabs, however, take glory and pride in larger and larger death tolls – military or civilian, it doesn’t matter.  The tactics used by terrorists (yes, I realize not all Muslims/Arabs are terrorists, but nearly all terrorists have been Mulsim/Arabic) are in fact barbaric and inhuman… it is for this reason it is difficult to ‘humanize’ a culture that embraces terrorism.
The Only Good Arab (26:07m)
A quick montage of movie posters accompanies a derisive commentary regarding movies made ‘in connection with the Department of Defense’.  You’d have to freeze frame to see which movies are highlighted, but it’s curious the ones he chose.  I did the hard work and will  present them (in order) for you…
1)      Executive Decision (1996) Arabs hijack a plane to get their leader released from American custody – reflecting the real life Palestinian “Dawson’s Field Hijackings” of Sept 1970 as well as the Palestinian hijacking of Air France Flight 139 in June of 1976, the Palestinian hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 in October of 1977, the hijacking of Kuwait Airways flight KU561 in February of 1982 as well as the 1985 Palestinian hijacking of EgyptAir Flight 648 (Although that type of rescue has no historical basis, the plotline of Palestinians taking hostages to get a comrad free was hardly invented by Hollywood!
2)      Death Before Dishonor (1987) An American Embassy goes lax in its security measures and is overrun by terrorists, similar to the fall of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1978
3)      Black Hawk Down (2001) It is very telling that Dr. Shaheen doesn’t address this movie directly.  Perhaps he avoids it because according to all accounts it is a very accurate telling of the events that took place in October of 1993 in Somalia.  It is difficult to argue bias and stereotype in a factually based film.
4)      Patriot Games (1992) I find it laughable that this is included in the montage as it has nothing to do with Arabs, Palestinians, or the Middle East.  The terrorists in this Tom Clancy story are members of the Irish Republican Army.
5)      Navy Seals (1990) Yes, it’s American S.E.A.L.s vs. MiddleEastern terrorists.

6)      Rules of Engagement (2000) I find it curious that Dr. Shaheen includes this movie, and in fact uses it as an example of stereotyping later in his documentary (27:02m), calling it the “most racist.”  I find it curious because throughout the majority of the movie, the Samuel Jackson character is ASSUMED to be guilty, with the presumption of innocence placed upon the Arabs.  Furthermore, much of the film shows the US government doing its damnedest to convict an American soldier who isn’t guilty of breaking the rules of engagement  - in order to be politically correct and Arab-sensitive.  I’m not sure this is the best movie to use if one is trying to show Americans as ‘hell bent’ to railroad Arabs.  It also shows the after-effects
of American bullets (not exactly showing Arabs as ‘inhuman’)

7)      True Lies (1994)  Okay another Good guys vs Bad guys in which the bad guys are Arabs.
8)      Iron Eagle (1986)  More in common with a US vs Saddam than Western vs Arab… but we might give this one to the Doctor.

There are a good 25-30 more minutes in the film, mostly repeating what has already been stated – Arabs and Palestinians are victims of propaganda and stereotyping in American films.  Nothing they do is wrong and nothing Hollywood (Westerners) have to say about them is right.
Among my friends and associates, I am one of the first to defend the Palestinians as a group (while condemning the actions of the few), but even I can’t call this “documentary” objective in any manner, much less an exercise in critical thinking.  It is a one-sided diatribe that assumes the worst in Americans and Hollywood, and sees nothing but goodness and purity in the Palestinians and Arabs.  Critical Thinking by definition should never take such an absolute view of anything!
We do ourselves a disservice to ignore facts in the pursuit of ‘understanding’ and ‘tolerance’; and the facts remain that Palestinians and Arabs cheered at the murder of thousands of innocents in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.  The fact remains that they have declared war on us, our country, and our culture.  The fact remains that the ‘torture’ of Abu Graib prisoners pales when compared to men being beheaded with agonizingly slow cuts of a knife as seen in Al Qaeda videos.  The fact remains that many (if not all) Arabs have customs, ideals, and beliefs that are barbaric to Western eyes and can never be explained-away or rationalized (the aforementioned beheadings and treatment of women for example).  The fact remains that until more Arabs clearly, unequivocally, and vocally condemn these barbaric customs and actions, they must accept being identified with them.
Oh yeah! The list I promised you.......
Movie …. Enemy or Villain
1) Gone With The Wind – Poverty, Yankees, war…… no Arabs
2) Star Wars – Darth Vader, Old white guy in a black suit, the Empire (a buncha’ guys with English accents) Stormtroopers…. No Arabs, unless you want to make the leap that Sandpeople = Arabs, in that case they have a bit-part
3) The Sound of Music – White guys, namely Nazis
4) ET – The Extra-Terrestrial – The Federal Government, a buncha’ white guys in white suits, not an Arab in sight
5) The Ten Commandments – hmmmm, it does take place in the Middle East but I’m not sure if Phararoh counts as an “Arab”.. he certainly wasn’t Muslim, as Mohammed was still 6,000 years in the future
6) Titanic – Iceberg, rich white guy, class warfare… lotsa’ challenges, but no Arabs
7) Jaws – daaaa dum daaaaa dum dumdum dumdum… mmmm 1 shark 0 Arabs
8) Doctor Zhivago – Russians, Communists, or was it the Tzarists? Either way.. not a single Arab
9) The Exorcist – Lucifer, Belzebub, Legion, Lilith… not an Arab
10) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – I don’t think the Wicked Witch was an Arab or Muslim
11) One Hundred and One Dalmatians – never clearly defined, but I think DeVille is an Irish or Scott name, isn’t it?
12) Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back – same as #2, except add Boba Fett… ethnicity unknown (Are Mandelorians Arabic?)
13) Ben Hur – Takes place in the Middle East but A-Salaam! The bad guy is a Roman! In fact ALL the Romans are bad guys! (accept for Ben’s adopted Dad)
14) Avatar – Rich, greedy, Capitalist white guys
15) Star Wars – Return of the Jedi – Still no Arabs in the Galaxy far, far Away
16) The Sting – non-Arabic Chicago thug (Italian, maybe?)
17) Raiders of the Lost Ark – Nazis (again), competing French archeologist. Oh yeah, and one scimitar-wielding Arab another bit-part villain.
18) Jurassic Park – Reconstituted Dinosaurs, none of which pray to Allah… oh yeah, and greedy, rich white capitalists again
19) The Graduate - Been a while since I watched this one, pretty sure it isn’t an Arab
20) Star Wars – Phantom Menace – Jar Jar Binks, no! wait, he was the annoyance… bad guys? The old white-guy senator, a bunch of robots, and some Nimodians that if anything resembled Orientals
21) Fantasia – I remember alligators, runaway broomsticks, a mountain sized demon, but no Arabs or Muslims
22) The Godfather – Italian mobsters, not ONE of whom was named Hakim!
23) Forrest Gump – villain? Not one I can think of, except maybe his own disabilities
24) Mary Poppins – ahh the rich old white guys again, this time MAJOR capitalists!
25) The Lion King – Was Scar a Muslim? An Arab? Depends on which part of Africa he’s from, I suppose. Let’s be nice and say maybe.
26) Grease – Mmmmm I don’t think Americans knew what an Arab was in the 50’s
27) Thunderball – SPECTRE, much more Soviet than Arab, and the Nassau scenes… mmm.. nope!
28) The Dark Knight – Joker’s not an Arab or a Muslim, but definitely a terrorist. Gotta’ say no on this one
29) The Jungle Book – depends on how you anthromorphize the animals. I’m saying no.
30) Sleeping Beauty – nope
31) Shrek 2 – nope
32) Ghostbusters – the Federal Government and Zool who happened to come from the Middle East – but neither a Musim nor Arab he be.
33) Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid… nope, nada, zilch
Okay, you’re getting the point. After these it’s Love Story, Spider-Man, Independence Day, Home Alone, Pinocchio, Cleopatra, Beverly Hills Cop, Goldfinger, Airport, American Graffiti, The Robe, Pirates of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Around The World in 80 Day, Bambi, Blazing Saddles, Batman, Bells of St. Mary’s… the top 50 highest grossing movies in history and not a single major Arab or Muslim villain in any of them! (In Airport the villain is a white guy, American businessman played by Van Heflin)
The rest of the list is here -
In AFI’s list of 100 best villains, I couldn’t find a single Muslim or Arab in the top 50 (I didn’t find numbers 51-100)
So, in summary, White guys, Capitalists, Nazis, Wicked Witches, black guys, Orientals, women, and even children are found on our list of movie villains… but not a single Arab or Muslim.