BOOKS & TIME CULTURE Arab Bashing on the Big Screen BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11 by Jack G. Shaheen Olive Branch Press 222 pages, $18 ack G. Shaheen is the leading scourge of anti Arab media bias. A professor emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University, he has for many years conducted what might be called a crusade against odious stereotypes of his people as lecherous, avaricious and violent. In 2001’s Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People ined more than 950 Hollywood feature films and concluded that only 12 portrayed Arabs positively. His new book is a sequel, an analysis of the same topic after September 11, 2001, when Arab terrorists attacked the United States. To update his study, Shaheen viewed films produced since 9/11. Although he finds that 29 of these present favorable images of Arabs, he concludes that “The total number of films that defile Arabs now exceeds 1,150.” Since movies shape perceptions, and perceptions influence actions, it is not unreasonable to charge Hollywood with complicity in the Bush administration’s disastrous occupation of Iraq. It was easy for American moviegoers to acquiesce in assaults against people who had already been dehumanized. Repeated representation of Arabs as the treacherous “other” made the grotesque images generated in Abu Ghraib seem inevitable. It is as if movies such as True Lies Rules of Engagement in which valiant Americans mow down evil Arabs, gave license to prison guards to photograph their own transgressions against Iraqis. Within the United States, celluloid bigotry also created an GUILTY Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs A:L.-ter 9/11 Jack G. Shaheen environment in which malicious rhetoric, discriminatory behavior and hate crimes can flourish. Filmmakers now think twice before maligning blacks, Latinos, Asians, American Indians and gays, but Arabs remain convenient fiends. Those who create monsters feel obliged to slay them. Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11 begins inauspiciously, with the dubious assertion that “Arabs remain the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood” Ranking victims by extent of injury is a mugger’s game, and Shaheen, who offers no statistical evidence to support his claim,. underestimates the damage done to communities other than his own. At the very least, he ignores an abundant and popular genre, the Western, that for most of the 20th century was stocked with indigenous foils to triumphant cowboys and cavalries. The American media does tend to portray Arabs as homogeneous and Muslim, and Shaheen reminds us that not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab. He notes that most of America’s 3 million Arabs are Christian, like him. Nevertheless, he devotes considerable space to discussing slurs against Muslims and relations among the Abrahamic faiths, and includes detailed discussion of films that lack Arabs entirely. He faults one, a Bruce Willis action flick called Tears of the Sun ing Islamophobiathough its villainous Muslims are all Nigerian. He praises Alex Gibney’s documentary Taxi to the Dark Side that are “adversely affecting real ArabAmerican cab drivers:’ yet the innocent cab driver who is tortured to death in the film is Afghan, not Arab. Six years into a costly war fought on Arab soil, one might expect American media to demonize the enemy, rationalizing the necessity of killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. But perhaps because of popular revulsion at the war, Shaheen finds cause for hope. “Even though the majority of post9/11 films do, in fact, vilify a people he writes, “I am somewhat encouraged to report that since 9/11, silver screens have displayed, at times, more complex, evenhanded Arab portraits than I have seen in the past. Some producers did not dehumanize Arabs, and instead presented decent, heroic characterschampions, even, in several films. Not all women were displayed as submissive clad-inblack objects. Nor were all Palestinians and Egyptians uniformly depicted as crazed radicals:’ Shaheen does suggest that the worst films have gotten more vicious, and that television, the focus of his 1984 book The TV Arab, has deteriorated even more. Shaheen nominates the urban crime drama Two Degrees detestable post-9/11 film.” The film, which did not linger long in theaters, pits African-American hoodlums against two Arab-American brothers who own a liquor store in South Central Los Angeles. The brothers are so loathsome they almost deserve it when they’re called “towel-head motherfuckers.” Digging through all this bigoted muck is arduous, odious work, and no one could envy Shaheen his task. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the works he 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 28, 2008
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