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Arabs in Hollywood

The Academy Awards rarely make mention of films that properly address issues relating to the Arab world, Islam and/or terrorism (I’m not including technical categories like sound and special effects). Of course, there are exceptions like Waltz With Bashir and Munich, but those types of movies are only palpable to the people running Hollywood because they present a purely Israeli perspective. Syriana is another one, closer to the middle of the spectrum. And of course there was Paradise Now and all its problems (despite the fact that it was produced with help from people in Israel).

There have been several motion pictures in the past couple years that did not get a significant level of attention; they received little to no mention in major awards ceremonies. Some were good, others bad. I have included my thoughts on some of the ones I’ve actually seen. The Kingdom was the most ‘popular’ of the bunch but it came out around the same time as a lesser known film that was far superior…

BEWARE OF SPOILERS!!!

Rendition

If you haven’t already watched this film, you should. It’s about an Egyptian-American suspected of terrorism who gets swept away to “North Africa” where he is tortured with the blessing and collusion of US officials. It was the first time I saw an ‘Arab-themed’ Hollywood movie that didn’t leave me in a rage by the time it was over. Although its subject matter is directly related to the so-called war on terror, Rendition actually does relatively well in humanizing Arabs; it also highlights the drawbacks of questionable US policies. No wonder it wasn’t given much attention. It isn’t even available on Blu-ray in the US. That’s too bad… it was a good production with an excellent script – highly recommended.

  • The film highlights the many problems with an ongoing policy that sanctions the kidnapping and torture of “suspects” in facilities outside the US.
  • Rendition also addresses the real problem of violent religious fanaticism in pockets of the Muslim world, and it does so with a refreshing dose of objectivity.
  • There is some solid acting… Omar Metwally does a great job in the lead role; as usual, Meryl Streep plays her part convincingly – a coldhearted intelligence official; Reese Witherspoon does OK as a pregnant wife struggling to help her husband. Most of the (Arab) supporting cast also did very well. Ironically, the chief interrogator is played by an Israeli (who does a fine job).
  • All the viewer knows is that the movie takes place in “North Africa” no actual country is ever specified.
Maybe I’m a little biased, but I really enjoyed this film. I was following the whole thing intently. At one point I thought the plot was reverting to the same old cookie-cutter treatment we have come to expect from Hollywood, but that was part of the genius of the script writers. This is a film that should have been showered with praise and well marketed, instead it went by largely unnoticed and unacclaimed – a perfect example of the darker side of politics in Hollywood. The movie was far from perfect, but it should be seen nonetheless. A significant step forward for Arabs in the movie business, it was a surprise to see something like it finally come out of Hollywood. It’s a shame that more people didn’t see it.

This film about a bunch of Arab Americans never made it to theaters because no major studio would pick it up. Thinking that was a good sign, I expected the movie to be really good. It turned out to be OK… worthy of both ample praise and criticism. American East was written, directed and produced by Arabs (Brian Cox also lent a hand and some money). Tony Shalhoub played the role of an Israeli who helps his Egyptian buddy make it big (obviously helping himself in the process). There are a number of interesting sub-plots as well. I recommend American East, but only to Arabs or people who already understand us well. For anyone else, it will only reinforce negative stereotypes.
  • The film shows real issues affecting Arabs in America: discrimination, legal problems, socio-cultural barriers, family matters and politics.
  • The message of cooperation between Arabs and Jews is worth pointing out, even if the Arab characters fail to make things right for themselves at then
    end of the day.
  • With the exception of one Indian and one Iranian, Arab characters were actually played by Arab actors. 
  • Aside from Kais Nashef, the acting was not that good. While clearly intentional, the lack of cohesion between the various characters was problematic. Some of the performances were a little over the top.
  • The movie was built on a number of stereotypes, which is regrettable to say the least.
  • In the end, the Jews save the day and the new restaurant is opened. The final scene shows Jews and Arabs fighting each other at the door; meanwhile, the oldest Jew approaches the youngest Arab in peace and respect and they walk towards the new establishment together.
A decent film, American East is entertaining despite the fact that it relies far too much on stereotypes and cliches. The restaurant theme, the terrorist thing, the arranged marriage, the screaming… we’ve seen it all before. Why not think out of the box? A good example of the way stereotypes were treated was the actor playing an actor; he struggles so much with his constant portrayal of terrorists that he eventually takes hostages in a fit of frustration and rage before being shot by a sniper. Very little is made of that incident. While there is often a degree of truth behind stereotypes, exploiting them does not help them go away. Ultimately, it is an example of capitulation to the status quo. Instead of playing by the rules that are already in place, we need to affect positive change. American East fails to do that, but it’s worth checking out nonetheless.

I’m not exactly sure what to think of this one. It seemed quite good as I was watching it, but I began feeling conflicted towards the end. Although it’s definitely a movie I think people should see, I wouldn’t sing its praises. Don Cheadle plays the role of a Sudanese-American terrorist… who turns out to be working undercover. His character is Muslim and a good representative of Islam, which is relatively easy since the vast majority of the other Muslims in the film are terrorists. Nevertheless, this is a movie I recommend for everyone with a properly functioning brain. The ultimate message is a good one: terrorists betray the essence of Islam.
  • A decent effort at trying to show the good side of Islam.
  • Don Cheadle actually speaks some discernible form of Arabic.
  • Despite the generally positive message of the movie, there are no Arab heroes… only more of the same – a bunch of terrorists.
  • Even though the American sympathizer is really an undercover agent, he doesn’t come across as an admirable hero either… just a sand-nigger-lover.
  • The movie is riddled with stereotypes. Most of the Arabs are portrayed as simple-minded buffoons and/or ruthless terrorists.
Overall this was a good movie, and one that makes a valiant effort to contain the bigoted repercussions of the so-called war on terror. Surely one of the reasons for this must have been the consulting services provided by members of the ADC. It all came together nicely. The ending was good as it could be under the circumstances – a healthy exchange between Cheadle’s character and the FBI agent that had been chasing him – it emphasized the need to respect Islam. Although over 90% of the Muslims in the movie are terrorists, I think the message comes across (to those willing to accept it).

This movie was based on a relatively well-recieved novel by an Arab-American author; I posted about it several months ago before seeing it. I said I’d wait for the director’s cut, but what I saw was enough to form an opinion. I was not impressed. Towelhead is about a Lebanese-American girl entering puberty and discovering a strong sexuality that gets her into a lot of trouble. Her father is a caricature rooted in reality but he has no positive qualities. This was a film about sex, not racial identity. Mehammed wrote a review after he saw it; I agree with most of his critique. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is not worth watching, I can’t see myself recommending this film to anyone in good faith.
  • The subject matter is relevant to our times, especially in the United States. Sexuality is a difficult thing to address well on screen without being provoking.
  • It is a disturbing movie, vulgar and incoherent. The title is misleading – there is no discernible connection between ethnicity and sexuality in the storyline.
  • The main character is an Arab-American girl named Jasira (pronounced like Al Jazeera) – the role is played by an Indian-American.
  • The film does absolutely nothing to break down barriers or combat stereotypes against Arabs. The only Arab character – the father – is a reprehensible figure.
The book may be worth reading, but this was not a pleasant movie to watch. Most of the acting is bad. The first half is rather boring, and while the final scenes are more captivating, it is not enough to make it a good film. I don’t know if the extra 20 minutes in the director’s cut could make much of a difference. Maybe Towelhead was an appropriate title for the book, but Hollywood only seems to have used it in hopes of making money. Fortunately, it was not a very successful. Rights groups were correct in stating the the title was used as “sensational promotion” for the movie – it was more about sex than ethnic identity (again, Raghead would have been better).

I stayed away from this one for a long time… The trailer looked like more of the same – Americans killing a bunch of Arabs – so I saw no point in exasperating myself. But I kept hearing from many of my Arab friends that it was actually worth my time. Since my expectations were so low, I was not too disappointed. While there were numerous problems with the movie, there were some positive aspects to it. Among other things, it shines the spotlight on the ludicrous conditions surrounding the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US. Unfortunately, we are led to sympathize with the Americans in The Kingdom more than the Arabs. I would only recommend this to people who are already knowledgeable about US-Saudi relations and the important nuances that make the Middle East such a volatile place (not for most Americans).

  • The film takes a very critical view of Saudi Arabia; this is well warranted. The opening credits recap the creation of the kingdom and the evolution of its relations with the United States.
  • There is a positive theme of cooperation, even if the underlying message is that America rules.
  • The vast majority of the Arabs in the movie are portrayed in a negative light. Most are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.
  • The first American children we see are playing innocently, they are being watched by the master terrorist who passes the binoculars to the first Arab child we see; he’s forced to witness the savagery that follows.
  • A scene with a Saudi prince starts off well; he brings in his big hunting bird to show off his possessions rather than his political clout. There is good reason to mock the prince – who represents the ruling class more broadly – but the way agent Foxx sons his host is a little bit too much.
Considering how bad I was expecting this movie to be, it actually turned out to be decent. Despite its many shortcomings, it does come together well even if the ultimate message is one of hopelessness. Unfortunately, I can see ignorant Americans being led far astray by the film. In his most recent book, Jack Shaheen really dug into The Kingdom, calling it the most anti-Arab movie to come out after 9/11. In the scathing four-page review he discusses all the films shortcomings and takes apart the false claim that the director was trying to “avoid stereotypes.” Shaheen’s criticism is well warranted, but in fairness, the movie isn’t all bad.
_____________


There are other films I could have written about, if I had seen them. I have no desire to watch Don’t Mess With the Zohan or Body of Lies. But in addition to what is already on my Netflix queue, there will surely be more movies in the future that catch my interest. I’ll continue to share my thoughts…

The way that Arabs (and Islam) are portrayed in Hollywood is a major problem. While most other minority groups continue to be stereotyped, things have improved for them; with time, the taboos increase and a more objective portrayel emerges. Unfortunately, this is not so for Arabs (and Muslims to a slightly lesser extent). Villifying them is not only acceptable in Hollywood; it is actively encouraged.

Outside the confines of Hollywood, Arab image makers are doing increasingly well for themselves and their respective communities. A great example is Rachid Bouchareb who was behind the excellent film Indigènes (a.k.a. Days of Glory); I’m also looking forward to seeing his most recent production – London River. There are plenty of independent Arab filmamkers working in the US. With time they will help change things for the better, but there is still a long way to go before Hollywood starts portraying Arabs as regular people.

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Discussion

23 Responses to “Arabs in Hollywood”

  1. Have you heard of the book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jack Shaheen? In it, the author discusses over 900 films and the instances of anti-Arab sentiment in them. Check this out for more info: ” target=”_blank”>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reel_Bad_Arabs

    Posted by pp2006 | March 2, 2009, 3:23 am
  2. Have you heard of the book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jack Shaheen? In it, the author discusses over 900 films and the instances of anti-Arab sentiment in them. Check this out for more info: ” target=”_blank”>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reel_Bad_Arabs

    Posted by pp2006 | March 2, 2009, 3:23 am
  3. Have you heard of the book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jack Shaheen? In it, the author discusses over 900 films and the instances of anti-Arab sentiment in them. Check this out for more info: ” target=”_blank”>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reel_Bad_Arabs

    Posted by pp2006 | March 2, 2009, 3:23 am
  4. Have you heard of the book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jack Shaheen? In it, the author discusses over 900 films and the instances of anti-Arab sentiment in them. Check this out for more info: ” target=”_blank”>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reel_Bad_Arabs

    Posted by pp2006 | March 2, 2009, 3:23 am
  5. A great book! I should have mentioned it… He is in the process of working on an updated edition – keep your eyes open.

    Posted by Kalash | March 2, 2009, 4:47 am
  6. Great post, been following KABOBfest on RSS for just under 6 months now :>. Keep it up.

    Posted by Moses | March 2, 2009, 5:04 am
  7. There is a video version too, which is worth checking out.

    Posted by Hector | March 2, 2009, 6:21 am
  8. Great Roundup! I still have not seen some of these.

    Posted by Nimr | March 2, 2009, 6:25 am
  9. Towelhead is a terrible book, I couldn't believe it when I heard someone was actually making a movie out of it.

    Posted by Ndia | March 2, 2009, 2:13 pm
  10. I'm sorry dude but the Kingdom sucked really bad. =P

    Posted by Arayus | March 2, 2009, 8:24 pm
  11. As what's his name said about Arabs on Syriana… 100 years ago you were chopping each other's heads in the desert, and 100 years from you that's where you'll return.

    Posted by JJ3 | March 2, 2009, 9:05 pm
  12. The Kingdom was "All Bad", it was horrible, I can't believe anyone could watch that racist movie and think otherwise.

    Posted by Yasser | March 2, 2009, 9:41 pm
  13. But it had the guy from Arrested Development!

    Posted by Crass | March 2, 2009, 10:05 pm
  14. Palestine's own Omar Sheika is gunna inshAllah knock out boxing legend Roy Jones Junior on PPV March 21st! Here's some videos of Omar: HBO Ring Life part 1: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPoCEhhYBKw Ring Life part 2: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NO_uHUpAKEs ESPN highlight real: ” target=”_blank”>http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=3553505 Maxboxing Countdown: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.maxboxing.com/FeatureFights/rj_Sheika_… maybe you should have a countdown to fight night Thanks lets try to get behind Omar on this one! He really deserves our support! SHEIKA SHEIKA SHEIKA!!!

    Posted by Free Palestine | March 3, 2009, 8:07 am
  15. Palestine's own Omar Sheika is gunna inshAllah knock out boxing legend Roy Jones Junior on PPV March 21st! Here's some videos of Omar: HBO Ring Life part 1: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPoCEhhYBKw Ring Life part 2: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NO_uHUpAKEs ESPN highlight real: ” target=”_blank”>http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=3553505 Maxboxing Countdown: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.maxboxing.com/FeatureFights/rj_Sheika_… maybe you should have a countdown to fight night Thanks lets try to get behind Omar on this one! He really deserves our support! SHEIKA SHEIKA SHEIKA!!!

    Posted by Free Palestine | March 3, 2009, 8:07 am
  16. Palestine's own Omar Sheika is gunna inshAllah knock out boxing legend Roy Jones Junior on PPV March 21st! Here's some videos of Omar: HBO Ring Life part 1: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPoCEhhYBKw Ring Life part 2: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NO_uHUpAKEs ESPN highlight real: ” target=”_blank”>http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=3553505 Maxboxing Countdown: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.maxboxing.com/FeatureFights/rj_Sheika_… maybe you should have a countdown to fight night Thanks lets try to get behind Omar on this one! He really deserves our support! SHEIKA SHEIKA SHEIKA!!!

    Posted by Free Palestine | March 3, 2009, 8:07 am
  17. Palestine's own Omar Sheika is gunna inshAllah knock out boxing legend Roy Jones Junior on PPV March 21st! Here's some videos of Omar: HBO Ring Life part 1: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPoCEhhYBKw Ring Life part 2: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NO_uHUpAKEs ESPN highlight real: ” target=”_blank”>http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=3553505 Maxboxing Countdown: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.maxboxing.com/FeatureFights/rj_Sheika_… maybe you should have a countdown to fight night Thanks lets try to get behind Omar on this one! He really deserves our support! SHEIKA SHEIKA SHEIKA!!!

    Posted by Free Palestine | March 3, 2009, 8:07 am
  18. Munich was a great movie, everyone should see it

    Posted by Eagle | March 3, 2009, 6:04 pm
  19. Hello

    Posted by eagle007blogger | March 3, 2009, 6:08 pm
  20. Hello

    Posted by Eagle | March 3, 2009, 6:09 pm
  21. Great post. I also disliked Towelhead. It was much too much about sex.

    Posted by Diana | March 20, 2009, 2:21 pm
  22. please my name is zakaria, a student preparing for my graduation. i am doing a research about the stereotypes that are ingrained in hollywood movies. please i wish you could help me in obtaining as much possible of information concerning my topic. Please, could you HELP ??

    Posted by zakaria | March 29, 2009, 12:15 am
  23. I’m an arabic girl living in bahrain middle east and I know that some of the americans doesn’t really hate arabs but what I really hate when people call us murders and terrorists because we’re simply not .. 90% of the americans didn’t even visit middle eas then how can they judge .. Looking for what happened in 9-11 I don’t blame people about the way they think but they have to know something .. We never thought of the americans as a bad people and you should see how americans and all kind of people live in our contried .. We love them and have so much respact for them because in the end we’re people we’re humans and we all make mistakes but the smart one beetwen all of uus that person who know’s how to set things straight and keep going in the right road ..

    Posted by shaima mohammed | September 3, 2011, 10:11 pm

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