A time-honored myth is the idea that Hollywood is a bastion of politically correct liberal media elites, accepting of everyone except for white, heterosexual males. Hollywood doesn’t like people like me, a white male that tries to follow Jesus and takes the New Testament seriously, so I’m told. That’s partially true. Conservative religious believers are often portrayed in film and TV as sexually repressed, anti-science, simple-minded folk with narrow worldviews that resemble Machiavelli more than Jesus. But since I’ve decided to become an aspiring filmmaker, I’ve been studying the industry, and the open secret that everyone in the industry knows, but might be shocking to outsiders is this: Hollywood elites are comprised mostly of older, white males, which are the staggering majority of Oscar voters; and women and minorities don’t get a fair shake in the industry—and it’s not even close. Knowing that Hollywood is mostly run by older, white males has helped me become a more thoughtful consumer of media, which has led me to discover another truth: Arabs are the most maligned people in America today.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that other popular scapegoats have it easy. Gays in particular have it pretty bad, especially gay youth who are bullied at school and have nobody to turn to when they come home, since their church and parents reject them too. Without diminishing the pain of the LGBT community in America, at least they have a large section of Hollywood and pop culture rooting for them. Not so with Arabs. With the exception of Amreeka which is a beautiful independent film about a Palestinian Christian family that settles in Illinois where the mom gets a job at White Castle, and The Visitor, a film that humanizes an undocumented Syrian, I can’t think of many positive—or even nuanced—portrayals of Arabs. Okay, there is Paradise Now, also an independent, which puts a human face on...err...a suicide bomber.
See what I mean?
Try it for yourself. Think of an Arab you’ve seen in a movie or a TV show. Who are they? What are they doing? How are they portrayed? Are they portayed as human beings who work hard, love their children, with real emotions, flawed, neither saints nor villains—like you and me? Or are they one-dimensional stereotypes? I’m thinking of the fumbling idiots in Back to the Future who can’t get their bazookas to work, the Arabian Knights in Aladdin, the terrorist mom in 24 hell-bent on setting off a WMD, the fat oil sheiks in Taken who run a sex trafficking ring, the Iraqi women in American sniper who don’t grieve over their dead children. And if that’s not dehumanizing enough, we could expand our critique of media to video games and listen to the words of Arab American commentator/ comedian Amer Zahr who said in a recent blog post:
It has always bothered me that the targets on the video game Call of Duty all look like my dad.
Religious conservatives often raise the point that sex and violence in media have a corrosive influence on society, and that artists have a responsibility to shape the moral climate of our culture. I think that's a fair point, though I do think that portrayals of sin in film and TV should be examined by the larger context of the point the stories are trying to make. Having said that, there’s an old adage that says “Perception is reality”, and it’s hard to argue with the fact that the film and TV industry is one of the primary shapers of perception in U.S. culture, as well as the global culture. We know that Hollywood portrayals of African American men can lead to the fear and suspicion of black men that many people are now protesting, and at least some in Hollywood are trying to rectify that with shows like Black-ish and the variety of roles that are available to black actors. Given the success of American Sniper, I don’t think the issue of Arab villification is much on the radar for socially conscious industry workers in Hollywood.
It’s about time that somebody calls Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs for what it is: racism.
Up until this point in my life, I’ve only written and produced non-fiction. I’ve finally begun to work on my first novel, and I’m also co-writing a screenplay with a friend. So here’s my pledge as an aspiring storyteller. Regardless of who I write about, I will do my best to portray people not as one-dimensional stereotypes, but as human beings. Whether my characters are saints or villains, or anything in between, I will do my best to portray the truth of who they are and will portray to the best of my ability the context in which they live. To do anything less is un Jesus-like, and goes against the core of my faith.
You have my permission to hold me accountable.