A full house has turned out at the Directors Guild of America for the L.A. premiere of the new documentary "Reel Bad Arabs," which makes the case that Hollywood is obsessed with "the three Bs" -- belly dancers, billionaire sheiks and bombers -- in a largely unchallenged vilification of Middle Easterners here and abroad.
"In every movie they make, every time an Arab utters the word Allah? Something blows up," says Eyad Zahra, a young filmmaker who organized the screening this week with the support of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
The documentary highlights the admittedly obsessive lifework of Jack Shaheen, a retired professor from Southern Illinois University, the son of Lebanese Christian immigrants and the author of "TV Arabs," "Reel Bad Arabs" and the upcoming "Guilty? Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs after 9/11."
In his tireless quest for evidence -- any evidence-- of Arab stereotyping, Shaheen has viewed (and reviewed in his books) thousands of movies and TV shows. What he has found, the 71-year-old academic says, are the most maligned people on the silver screen. It is a diss that dates back to the earliest days of cinema and continues today with popular television shows such as "Sleeper Cell" and "24," which Shaheen calls the worst of smears, "because it portrays American Arabs as the enemy within, like, 'Look at the terrorist -- hey, he's my next-door neighbor!' "
In the documentary, Shaheen shows dozens of film clips to illustrate his point. Arab women? Hip-swiveling eye candy of the oasis or "bundles in black." If Arab men are not presented as buffoons, or smarmy carpet-dealers, or decadent sheiks (and oh, how the oily sultans are smitten with the blond Western womens!), then they are basically your bug-eyed hijacker-bomber....
In an interview before the premiere, Shaheen says that the OPEC oil embargo, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis all conspired to cast the Arab as film villain beginning in the 1970s. "We pray and we kill," Shaheen says of the depiction. Like other stereotypes on film -- of blacks, Jews, gays, Latinos, Native Americans -- Arabs are now in the crosshairs.
"The Arab serves as the ultimate outsider, the other, who doesn't pray to the same God, and who can be made to be less human," says Shaheen, who argues that movies and TV shows do matter -- that they shape public opinion at home and abroad. "Do you have any idea what it must be like to be a young person watching this stuff over in the Middle East?" he says. And if you ask Shaheen who even cares about an old Chuck Norris film, he answers, "Have you ever looked through a TV Guide? These movies are on television constantly. The images last forever. They never go away...."
In the Q&A session after his documentary, Shaheen explains that he is not advocating a politically correct scrubbing of all portrayals of Arab Americans and Arabs -- even as terrorists. The problem is balance, he says.
Meaning? Hollywood still shows black pimps and Latino gangbangers, but pop culture has also made some room for Will Smith and "Ugly Betty." "I've seen the Arab hijacker, but where is the Arab father?" Shaheen says. What we need, he says, seriously, is a sitcom called "Everybody Loves Abdullah." [Link]
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