Movies

Unreel Claims

Why is Hollywood still beating up on the Serbs?

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Among the many ways Fox's exciting, gimmick-rich adventure series 24 provides timely entertainment—a relentlessly tragic tone, suspenseful cross-cutting—one of the most striking has been a forceful rejection of the post-9/11 taboo against depicting Arab terrorists on screen. So far, this season's multiple plots have included a conspiracy, apparently driven by Arabs, to nuke Los Angeles; several scenes protesting the rush to judgment against Middle Easterners; and, most garishly, the imminent marriage of a possibly terrorist-connected young Arab to a xanthocroidal WASP princess. Various law-and-order television shows have been quietly drifting back into depictions of Arabs as terrorists lately, but 24's volatile mix of technothrills, identity politics and Der Stürmer-style melodrama is a high point in TV chutzpah.

It's also pretty rare at a time when Hollywood stereotyping of Arabs is widely viewed as a threat to life and liberty. To get an idea of how protective the movie industry has begun to feel toward Middle Easterners, consider some comments from movieland muckety-mucks.

"One is less likely to use an Arab terrorist or any terrorist as a grab-bag villain for an action movie," Walter Parkes, the head of DreamWorks' motion picture division, told The Washington Post recently.

An unnamed producer tells the Los Angeles Times, "Hollywood is caught in a bind. Executives are very wary of the word 'terrorist' in screenplays. In fact, it's being excised. It's almost a dirty word. They don't want to use Arabs as villains, but why can't we show the truth? The answer has still not been reached." In the same Times story, Bill Mechanic, production chief for Ed Zwick's controversial 1998 civics lesson The Siege, claimed "Today's bad guys are these nefarious, unspecified, non-real, exaggerated villains." Added a senior executive at 20th Century Fox, "They're not 'out of the headlines' characters."

These claims seem consistent with Tinseltown's immediate post-9/11 response, when producers, directors, actors and executives made Dogme 95-style vows to avoid inflaming prejudice against Arabs or Arab-Americans. Explaining in September 2001 why she had changed the bad guys in the film The Sum of All Fears to European Nazis, Paramount chief Sherry Lansing said, "You [hear about] these Afghan or Arab children in high schools who are getting picked on. You don't want this to be a country where we do this to innocent people." Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations told the Orange County Register, "It's too close now to even consider using Middle Eastern people as villains or terrorist bombings in plots." The New York Times quoted producer Alison R. Rosenzweig as saying, "You just have to be careful that it doesn't seem as though all Arabs or all Muslims are bad guys. You'll have to be really sensitive to that." In an interview on CNBC, Wall Street Journal reporter Tom King said, "I would say that I don't think that we're going to see Arab terrorists portrayed in the movies on the big screen anytime soon."

All this despite evidence that audiences were actually hankering for terrorist-themed films, which saw large increases on the video rental market in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. "They wanted patriotic titles like The Siege and anything where terrorists got the stuffing kicked out of them," an unnamed video store manager told the L.A. Times.

The filmmakers' acts of contrition (particularly that of Lansing, who in 2000 allowed washed-up husband William Friedkin to direct Rules of Engagement, considered by many critics to be one of the most inflammatory films of recent years) suggest that they themselves believe negative portrayals of Middle Easterners have negative consequences for the community at large. If this belief has gained currency, it's thanks in part to decades of groundwork by Jack Shaheen, the Dr. Van Helsing of Arab stereotypes and author of The TV Arab, Arab and Muslim Stereotypes in American Popular Culture, and other media autopsies.

Shaheen has been quietly making the rounds in the past year, partly to continue his anti-stereotyping quest in troubled times, partly to promote his 2001 masterpiece Reel Bad Arabs, an encyclopedia of negative (and very rarely, positive) images of Middle Easterners in cinema. Since 1977's Black Sunday, Shaheen told the Newhouse news service soon after the 9/11 attacks, some 18 Hollywood films depicted Arab Muslims "invading America and liquidating innocents."

For a lesser man, Reel Bad Arabs would have been a life's work, and it's a testament to Shaheen's tirelessness that this book is just part of his one-man media-crit universe. Rivaling Halliwell's Film Guide in both girth and reviewerly dyspepsia, Reel Bad Arabs examines more than 900 films, from 1896 to the present, detailing every veiled harem girl and leering sheikh. (Each movie is coded according to the stereotypes depicted: "SHEIKHS," "MAIDENS," "PALESTINIANS," "VILLAINS," etc.)

In addition to expected offerings like Exodus ("WORST LIST"), The Mummy (Shaheen's gloss: "[AP writer Michael] Hoffman contends politics may have played a role in the demonization of Arabs, writing, 'Universal's President and Chief Operating Officer is Ron Meyer. Universal is owned, in part, by Seagram, whose CEO is Edgar Brofman (sic) Jr. Brofman's father runs the World Jewish Congress."), Beau Geste and its many remakes, and most of Golan and Globus' Delta Force franchise ("WORST LIST"), Shaheen picks through such middle-of-the-road Hollywood fare as Father of the Bride II ("Sleazy Habib tells George, 'We like house, very much. You sell, we pay top dollar!'") and Mouse Hunt ("The sheikh bids $5 million.").

The list is generously padded with clichéd but not vituperative entries like The Rescuers—in which robed Arab mice are featured along with turbaned Sikh mice, Dutch mice in wooden shoes, and so on—and with pictures that depict no Arabs at all. If Arabs get even a mention in a movie, the movie gets a mention from Shaheen: Noises Off and Bright Lights, Big City are just a few of the films Shaheen indexes for passing references to the Middle East—and indeed the offhanded slurs in these films often reveal an institutional bias more effectively than do the full-dress Arab impersonations in others. Most surprising WORST LIST entry: Hollywood Hot Tubs 2: Educating Crystal. Most unexpected favorable writeup: John Carpenter's libertarian parable Escape From L.A. ("Impressed by Taslima's wisdom, Snake asks: 'Why are you here?' Sighs Taslima, 'I was a Muslim in South Dakota. All of a sudden, they made it a crime.' Suddenly, she is shot dead."). Here's the entry for Head, a psychedelic portmanteau picture from the Monkees:

Head (1968), COL. The Monkees, William Bagdad. SP: Bob Rafelson, Jack Nicholson. SHEIKHS
Nonsensical vignettes poke fun of Arabs, Italians, Native Americans, others.
Scene: The desert. The "black sheikh" (Bagdad) rides up to a Coke machine. He whispers "psst," then rides off.
• Clad as an Arab potentate, Mickey enters an arabesque room. As he smokes a nargelih, harem maidens surround him.
• Final scenes, the desert. The Monkees and some Arabs pop up. Suddenly, the black sheikh and some Arabs yell, "Lalalalalala." They drink Coke. A tank blows up the Coke machine; and again, they holler.

Apparently, the cinema-only format doesn't allow Shaheen to give his take on the Clash's "Rock the Casbah" video.

But after a few hours of reading Reel Bad Arabs, I found myself fretting over Shaheen's omissions. Why doesn't The Blues Brothers, with John Belushi's "I give you twenty camels for the women" bit, make the cut? Why doesn't Shaheen, who in his introduction regrets Hollywood's obliviousness to the Arabs' well-earned reputation for hospitality, notice the scene in Raising Arizona where Nicolas Cage, urging his wife to welcome uninvited visitors, advises, "In Arab lands, they'd lay out a plate"? And speaking of the Coen brothers, where is The Big Lebowski, which features Saddam Hussein as a bowling alley clerk in a dream sequence? (By contrast, 1994's Nostradamus gets a mention for some brief file footage of Saddam, and Shaheen gives extensive coverage to the Hot Shots! films, which feature Lebowski Saddam Jerry Haleva in a speaking role.) Finally, where is "Ali Hakim," the unscrupulous knickknacks dealer played by Eddie Albert in Fred Zinneman's film of Oklahoma?

Mostly though, Reel Bad Arabs left this reader wondering, with a mix of pity and admiration, what could drive a man to spend years sifting through detritus like Kiss the Other Sheikh, Iron Eagle ("VILLAINS, WORST LIST"), Iron Eagle II ("VILLAINS"), Navy SEALS ("PALESTINIANS, MAIDENS, WORST LIST"), Ernest In the Army and the Pauly Shore vehicle In the Army Now, hunting for nuggets of Hollywood racism? Like Mr. Skin, Shaheen has a laser-like focus on his objective that makes for a bracing alternative history of a medium. To get a measure of how indifferent he can be to standard filmic attractions, consider this piece of advice for viewers of the Dyanne Thorne BDSM classic Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs: "A suggestion: Fast-forward through explicit frames not related to Arab images."

That focus frequently makes the book less convincing than it should be. In fact, at times Reel Bad Arabs is anti-convincing; here is a discussion of a one-liner in Mike Judge's superlative Office Space:

An American software engineer (Ron Livingston) tries to convince his co-worker (Ajay Naidu) to rig the computers in order to steal from their cold-blooded employer… The engineer tells his friend not to worry: "This is America… This isn't Riyadh. You know, they're not going to saw your hands off here."

Note: Though the Saudi criminal justice system does sanction amputations for theft, the Saudis never saw a criminal's hand off; they surgically amputate it, and only after three proven offenses.

Now that's a relief! Until I read Shaheen's explanation, I had thought the movie was merely poking fun at Livingston's Orientalist notions of the Middle East—an impression underscored by the fact that Naidu's "Samir" is one of a handful of intelligent, sympathetic, positive characters in the movie. (Shaheen fails to note this last point, though elsewhere he urges Hollywood to depict "an Arab or an American of Arab heritage as a regular guy.")

The key to Shaheen's passion, however, may be that he is right on the overall issue. If you thought Jamie Farr's last act of entertainment terrorism came when he stopped wearing a dress on M*A*S*H, Shaheen's study of Farr's "Abdul bin Falafel" character in the Cannonball Run movies will set you straight. You don't need an encyclopedia to demonstrate that Hollywood presents cartoonish and hostile images of Arabs, but the book's 900 entries make the point in the starkest possible terms.

Nor is it impertinent to note, as Shaheen does, that the industry doing the vilification employs a disproportionate number of Jews—it was an implicit recognition of this fact that gave this year's email hoax about Steven Spielberg's plans for a "Palestinian Schindler's List" its particular artistic punch. The Israeli producers Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus have devoted much of their output to pictures where villainous Arabs—and Palestinians in particular—are terminated with extreme prejudice. (Globus, Shaheen notes, is also a former director of Israel's Film Industry Department—a significant position, since that country stands in for the Arab world in most American film shoots.)

On the other hand, Golan and Globus haven't had a hit for more than ten years, and their company, Cannon pictures, is out of business. Golan has lately been reduced to obviously penning his own bio page at the Internet Movie Database. Audiences are nothing if not fickle, and that characteristic tends to weaken the argument that screen images have real-life consequences. In his book's introduction, Shaheen does not inspire confidence by citing a film-as-teacher wheeze by Jihad vs. McWorld author Benjamin Barber, nor by speculating that "[f]requent moviegoers may even postulate that illusionary Arabs are real Arabs."

If that's the case, then why hasn't the image of Arabs in America plummeted in the past three decades, under a concerted propaganda campaign by the entertainment industry's finest? Instead, American opinions about Palestinians have at worst remained stable or slightly improved. In the 1970s, an Oscar-winning actress could derail her own career with ill-considered comments about Palestine; today, the President can call for a Palestinian state with relatively little political fallout. The Carter era's widespread paranoia about oil sheikhs buying up our national treasure—a form of public hysteria that drove message-movie relics like Rollover and the dated, overrated Network ("SHEIKHS, WORST LIST")—is a thing of the past. This is a trend even Chuck Norris and Charlie Sheen, together!, can't reverse, and it can only accelerate as Casey Kasem's Arab-American top 40 list sweeps the nation.

This trend is even more marked in the international market toward which American films are increasingly directed. It's a widely acknowledged truth that Hollywood films and television shows are the most potent, ubiquitous cultural products in the world, driving local films out of theaters in France and Mexican telenovelas off the air in Lebanon. Yet outside the United States, antipathy toward Israel is widespread and opposition to American policy in the Middle East all but universal. Why haven't these foreigners gotten with Hollywood's program? Shaheen (and ironically, film industry professionals themselves, whose estimate of Hollywood's power is dependably inflated) may prefer to believe in a Pavlovian audience reaction, but evidence for this is thin at best.

You can see the proof in the way the film industry reacted when confronted with an actual Arab terrorist act on U.S. soil (an act that, in the ultimate slap in the face to Southern California's imagineers, was both more clever and more destructive than anything Hollywood has ever cooked up). Producers could easily have seized on September 11 as proof that they were merely being realistic with all those terrorist films over the years. Instead, they ran away from the issue as quickly as possible. Confronted with a choice between real life and make believe, Hollywood producers, to their immense credit, will take make believe every time.

Which may be the answer to our last question: Why does Hollywood continue to give such a hard time to the Serbs? Extreme Ops, the latest entry in the burgeoning snowboarding-antiterrorism genre, is also the latest film to feature Serb terrorists marauding on U.S. soil. Among the 277 pictures listed on the IMDb's keyword page for "terrorism," there is more than a hefty sampling of features in which the dirty work is done by Serbs, Croats, Russians posing as Serbs or Croats, Croats posing as Serbs or Russians, and so on. Shaheen cites 18 films with Arab terrorists invading the U.S. since 1977, but in the past decade alone there have been more than 20 pictures with Serb villains, and more than a dozen featuring Serb terrorists.

In this time period, there has not been a single act of Serb terrorism against U.S. interests anywhere in the world—this even though Bill Clinton's illegal air campaign in Kosovo provided a more sanguinary motive for terrorism than anything our country did to the Saudis and Egyptians who slaughtered Americans on September 11. The Serb has value as a movie villain not because Americans have poor opinions of Serbs but because Americans have no opinions at all about Serbs. A Serb villain offends nobody, except maybe Serbs, and who's ever met one of those? Nobody's claiming Bosnians run the movie industry. But the effects are disturbing: Fed on a steady diet of Behind Enemy Lines, 24, The Peacemaker, Bad Company, and countless Serb-baiting episodes of JAG, how will our children ever make their peace with the Kostunica administration?

They will, of course, because audiences aren't as easily hoodwinked by Hollywood fantasy as Jack Shaheen and Sherry Lansing like to believe. There's an unacknowledged deal at work when you buy a ticket for Passenger 57 or any of the three Die Hard films: You will pretend to find the suave Euro-terrorists on screen menacing, and in exchange Hollywood will give you bullshit in its most thrilling form. And when you leave the theater, you'll continue to find Osama bin Laden (or his ghost) a more worrisome figure than Arkan, let alone Rutger Hauer. To the experts' frustration, Americans continue to get their real-life ideas from real life; even the most special of Special Edition DVDs is unlikely to change that.