How Arabs are depicted in American Movies
'Reel Bad Arabs' Takes on Hollywood Stereotyping
By William Booth: Washington Post, June 23, 2007; C01
LOS ANGELES -- A full house has turned out at the Directors Guild of America for the L.A. premiere of the new documentary "Reel Bad Arabs," which makes the case that 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, a young filmmaker who organized the screening this week with the support of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
The documentary highlights the admittedly obsessive lifework of Jack Shaheen, a retired professor from Southern Illinois University, the son of Lebanese Christian immigrants and the author of "TV Arabs," "Reel Bad Arabs" and the upcoming "Guilty? Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs after 9/11."
In his tireless quest for evidence -- any evidence-- of Arab stereotyping, Shaheen has viewed (and reviewed in his books) thousands of movies and TV shows. What he has found, the 71-year-old academic says, are the most maligned people on the silver screen. It is a diss that dates back to the earliest days of cinema and continues today with popular television shows such as "Sleeper Cell" and "24," which Shaheen calls the worst of smears, "because it portrays American Arabs as the enemy within, like, 'Look at the terrorist -- hey, he's my next-door neighbor!' "
In the documentary, Shaheen shows dozens of film clips to illustrate his point. Arab women? Hip-swiveling eye candy of the oasis or "bundles in black." 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.
"And not only are the Arabs dangerous, they're inept," says Shaheen, pointing to the head villain, called Salim Abu Aziz, in James Cameron's "True Lies," whom Arnold Schwarzenegger's character kills -- by launching him to his maker on the back of a missile.
We all love Omar Sharif in "Lawrence of Arabia," but Shaheen mostly ignores the positive. Here in Los Angeles, the audience groans and tsk-tsks when a clip from the James Bond film "Never Say Never Again" shows the blond and partially disrobed Kim Basinger being auctioned off to dirty, grasping Arabs with bad dental work. And the audience laughs when a couple of Libyan yahoos with machine guns suddenly show up (why?) in a VW van (why?) in "Back to the Future" to blast away at Christopher Lloyd's Dr. Brown, because it is just so absurd.
"When I saw these movies as a kid, sometimes I laughed, but now you kind of cringe," Omar Naim, a director ("The Final Cut" with Robin Williams), says after seeing the documentary. For example, Shaheen includes the scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in which Indiana Jones is confronted by the sword-wielding Arab, and then just shrugs and shoots him. "That's a funny scene," Naim says, "and if there were more normal Arabs in the movies, we could all laugh at him and not think, wait, is Indiana Jones racist?"
Seriously, check out the hook-nosed Jamie Farr as the hand-licking sheik in "Cannonball Run II." There is also a scene from "Father of the Bride Part II" that features Eugene Levy as the thickly accented Mr. Habib, who rips off poor Steve Martin (though if you live in L.A. you'd get that Levy was doing a Persian, not an Arab). But Shaheen suggests imagining Mr. Habib as a Jew and see if it's still funny.
And why did Disney's Oscar-winning "Aladdin" begin with the song lyrics: "Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam / Where they cut off your ear / If they don't like your face / It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home!" (The lyrics were changed but only after protests from Arab Americans.)
These are the buffoons. The more serious baddies appear in bad films such as "Black Sunday" (Middle East terrorists attack Super Bowl using the Goodyear blimp) and "Death Before Dishonor" (Middle East terrorists attack U.S. embassy). And then there is the work of Israeli film producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who brought you Chuck Norris in "The Delta Force," in which Arab terrorists swarm (and are squashed) like insects, bringing to mind treatment of the Japanese in World War II films.
The Defense Department, Shaheen says, has assisted in the making of some particularly insulting anti-Arab fare, such as "Iron Eagle" (kid flies jet to save dad from radical Middle Eastern state), "Navy Seals" (Charlie Sheen tags and bags Middle Eastern terrorists) and Shaheen's choice for most inflammatory work, "Rules of Engagement," released in 2000, in which armed women and children lay siege to the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, based on the story by the former Navy secretary and now junior senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, and starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones.
And thus we have the Timeline of International Villainy. To create drama, especially in action and war movies, Hollywood needs bad guys, and in their time, the Japanese and Germans, and later the Koreans and Vietnamese, served that role. For a long while, commies were useful foils (with their taste for world domination, nukes and vodka), but with the end of the Cold War, the Soviets became the Russians, and the Russians only worked if they were gangsters, and Hollywood already had the Italians to do that job. Colombian drug traffickers were employed as handy replacements, but then coke just felt . . . dated. Transnational corporate evildoers are okay, if not that sexy. But there just has been something about those Arabs. They've got legs.
In an interview before the premiere, Shaheen says that 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. "Do you have any idea what it must be like to be a young person watching this stuff over in the Middle East?" he says. And if you ask Shaheen who even cares about an old Chuck Norris film, he answers, "Have you ever looked through a TV Guide? These movies are on television constantly. The images last forever. They never go away."
The 50-minute documentary, for which Shaheen is looking for a distributor, is making the rounds at film festivals, and Shaheen says he would like to see it aired on public television. A DVD can be purchased through the Media Education Foundation.
In the Q&A session after his documentary, Shaheen explains that he is not advocating a politically correct scrubbing of all portrayals of Arab Americans and Arabs -- even as terrorists. The problem is balance, he says.
Meaning? Hollywood still shows black pimps and Latino gangbangers, but pop culture has also made some room for Will Smith and "Ugly Betty." "I've seen the Arab hijacker, but where is the Arab father?" Shaheen says. What we need, he says, seriously, is a sitcom called "Everybody Loves Abdullah."