Film explores Hollywood vilification of Arabs

Grace Chon

Originally Published April 18, 2007

CSUN’s Muslim Student Association presented a documentary called “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People” for a screening and discussion during Islamic Awareness Week on April 10 in the Flintridge Room.

The film is based on a book with the same title by Dr. Jack Shaheen, a professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University.

In the film, Shaheen, the narrator, explores continual negative stereotypes of Arabs, recycled in one American movie after another, which constitutes about “20 percent of films.”

“I’ve watched over 1,000 films and each one consists of hateful Arab stereotypes,” Shaheen said in the film. “They’ve recycled every old, degrading stereotype. These are the stereotypes that rob an entire people of their humanity.”

Arab images started from mythological portrayals from the British and French writers and artists who traveled to the Middle East and originally created these stereotypes. Images of magic carpet riders and snake programmers who lure reptiles in and out of baskets became part of an instant “Ali Baba kit” for movies.

But the “Ali Baba kit” soon changed after World War II, when images became far more violent and portrayed Arabs as the ultimate American enemy, much like the Nazi figure. Three events in history placed the Arab people in the ultimate enemy status: the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, Arab oil in the 1970s, and the Iranian Revolution.

The film industry was the main perpetrator of images that imprinted Arabs as an American enemy. Although the movies involve fictional Middle Eastern characters, for the public, they often came to represent particular images of Arabs and how to think about them.

“Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA,” Jack Valenti, former CEO and president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said in the film.

Through Shaheen’s research in the portrayal of Arabs, he points to a link between politics and Hollywood, and the two reinforce each other.

“Cast a Giant Shadow” is a 1966 movie that contains a scene with a Jewish woman tied to a wrecked train with blood dripping on her back because the Star of David was carved into her back. The Middle Eastern characters with weapons in their hands make for a haunting image.

“We see (stereotypes) so many times,” said CSUN student Haider Al-Dhaif, who is from Iraq. “I was so used to being vilified that I didn’t care anymore.”

Since 9/11, images of terrorism have come to dominate Hollywood depictions of Arabs. The stereotypical female movie role as belly dancers has changed to a terrorist as well. But these images were easy to adapt.

“It was a lot easier to step into war in 2003 because for years we have been vilified of all things Arab,” Shaheen said. “Nineteen Arab and Muslim terrorists were responsible for (the death of) nearly 3,000 people. Their action now reflects the action of 1.3 billion people. That’s dangerous.”

“When I think of terrorists, I think of them as random people,” said Roya Alamdari, a senior business finance major who finds no relation in those characters to the Middle East. “I never looked at my own culture. I always looked at black and Latino representations in American films. But we’ve been exploited too.”

Even though Shaheen states that many are comfortable with prejudices, he has faith that future filmmakers would change stereotypes.

“We have to speak up, take a stand and say this is morally and ethically wrong to demonize a people,” Shaheen said.