Religion communicators moved by screening of Reel Bad Arabs

by John Daniel Gore, Michigan State University

The World Association of Christian Communicators North America offered a free screening of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People for members of the Religion Communicators Council March 26, 2009.

Jack Shaheen

Dr. Jack Shaheen answers questions about Reel Bad Arabs March 26.

The documentary features acclaimed author and media critic Jack Shaheen, who attended the screening during the 2009 RCC National Convention in Cambridge, Mass., and answered questions afterward.

Dr. Shaheen, for lack of a better word, is an amiable gentleman. RCC scholarship recipient Rob Collingsworth described him as “chill,” which decodes as amiable in a twenty-something-year-old mind.

Behind a small lectern in the Royal Sonesta Hotel Riverfront Room in Cambridge, Dr. Shaheen remarked that he was “at peace” speaking to the religion communicators. That would come as no surprise by the evening’s end.

As the lights went down, members glancing out the window could see distant bridges and buildings in Boston, their beacons glittering across the Charles River, between the pale-blue pillars of the pleasant venue.

WACC North America offered the screening as a gift to RCC members. The film had earlier been screened at WACC Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, in October 2008.

Dr. Shaheen let the film show the unsettling reality that plagues the portrayal of Arabs and Arab Americans in movie theaters and on television. The sequence of maligning images and caricatures that followed, according to him, represented over a century of lingering misunderstanding.

Reel Bad Arabs brings a heightened level of salience to inaccurate and unbalanced portrayals of Middle Eastern culture, ideology and personalities in a way similar to what earlier films have done, exposing stereotypes about other non-white groups.

The Middle East and its people were associated with extravagant sensuality and simple-mindedness from the silver screen’s infancy. The film draws connections between the belly-dancers and sword-toting bandits of black-and-white features and their eerily similar counter-parts in later cinema.

Several entrenched archetypes of the Arab world emerge through Shaheen’s narration and the sampled film segments, including the over-sexed (and greedy) sheik, the angry extremist and the repressed Muslim woman. A major motif of the documentary is the ubiquitous use of Middle Eastern characters as action movie villains and stock clowns.

The documentary unapologetically suggests a connection between U.S. foreign policy and the public acceptance of exaggerated portrayals. Such a two-way link may shape both policies and public opinion of Muslims, Muslim Americans and other people of similar ancestry. Shaheen clearly dispels the idea that the disproportionate number of negative Arabic characters in these films could represent the character of Middle Easterners globally.

The most memorable moments from Reel Bad Arabs come when audience members realize that they, perhaps unconsciously, have consumed cinema and television that perpetuates these trends. Shaheen does not hesitate to put Disney’s Aladdin (1992) on trial. From its opening moments, the childhood favorite taps into the long legacy of stereotypes.

The movie’s opening song immediately makes the Middle East into a dangerous and barbaric place in the minds of young children. The cartoon did not spare its audience even of scantily clad belly dancers or angry guards with big swords—both vintage images.

Adult favorites like True Lies seem to hit all of the typical “buttons” as well. It’s portrayal of Palestinian freedom fighters as bumbling, angry and absolutist terrorists is actually rather predictable and, sadly, does nothing to acknowledge the cause of some real Palestinians who are forced from their homes in a neo-colonial Israel.

Instead, this film is in consonance with United States policies and actions. More disturbing yet is the “inoculation” attempted in Rules of Engagement (2000). The film begins by making it appear as if Marine Col. Terry Childers, played by Samuel L. Jackson, really is at fault for ordering his men to fire on a crowd of Yemenis. Yet, later in the film the same crowd is portrayed as actually having fired first, even the sweet one-legged girl shown earlier. More than others, this film dares to take the audience’s common-sense speculations, present them and then discard them for absurd stereotypes again.

Reel Bad Arabs does not fail to show the viewer a few shining stars in the world of entertainment. The 1999 film Three Kings, which Shaheen consulted on, presents a notably balanced portrayal of Iraqis during the first Gulf War. Some are loyal to Saddam Hussein and his brutal government, of course, but others are allowed to be family members and even the victims of oppression that, clearly, they were. One scene memorably shows laughing teenage girls: neither belly-dancing nor wrapped from head to toe in black but human.

The documentary tracks away from the world of Hollywood movies and into the comedic sphere to find some real funny Arabs. One comedian recalls a movie audition he had once. While reading for the part of “terrorist No. 4,” he decided to play a gag on the director and exaggerate his monologue to sensational proportions. Unfortunately, the movie’s clueless director overlooks his facetious tone and offers him the part of an angry terrorist (which he declined).

Also notable, Reel Bad Arabs wanders into the realm of foreign film to approach the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from a more realistic perspective. In the sampled feature, two suicide bombers leave on a mission but, along the way, are allowed to be portrayed as human people who have doubts about what it is they are doing and, yes, reasons to keep on living and fighting for justice.

Dr. Shaheen greeted a stunned group when the lights came on again. Nevertheless, a healthy question-and-answer session followed.

One audience member wondered why actors of Middle Eastern descent would allow themselves to be cast in these roles. Another wondered if Hollywood and Washington, alike, could separate themselves from the framework of good guys and bad guys.

Dr. Shaheen assured them that, when on set, Arab actors did their best to distance themselves from the bad guy image inherent in their roles. Even so, many actors of East Indian lineage may be cast in their stead. Asked to speculate if another group may bear the brunt of negative portrayals in the future, Dr. Shaheen admitted he did not know.

Later, an audience member asked Dr. Shaheen to reflect on the role of religious communicators and when they should interface with these tensions. After a brief pause, he said it was relevant in all things communicators do and at all times. It is silence on these issues, he asserted, that is truly terrible.

John Daniel Gore, a native of southwest Michigan, is to graduate in May from Michigan State with degrees in communication and English.

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