Watch Aaron in the film Holy Wars

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Hollywood has an Arab problem

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.


Anonymous said...

I just watched the video and read this blog. Though I can deeply appreciate a person who seeks respect and toleration among religions, I think you were just simply unprepared to speak to the Islamic jihadist, a quality that most western-protestant Christians have. Orthodox Christians of the East have a story and an experience that most people are completely unaware of. And seeing that the Orthodox have kept the true Christian faith, even under the thumb of Islam, should give all western Christians pause and an open ear.

A fascinating article. The author, a Turk, is based in Ankara. She is an expert on Turkey's religious minorities. She has defended Turkey's Jews and Christians in a number of articles and openly states that Turkey is built on the ruins of the Orthodox culture that it ravaged (The Roman Culture, which Islam sees as a Victory over the "West.") She identifies herself as being born into Islam. Her views are quite enlightened and can be taken with little "spin."

How does this jive with the jihadists/islamists in Europe complaining to their western governments, when their own Islamic governments do not lend the very same qualities they ask for? The answer is the same as the jihadist in the video: "Because we are Muslim, we have the right too." Is it not, however, hypocrisy? If Islam continues to grow, there will be a holy war. However, true Christian will be the ones warring. They will not raise up their swords, but will bow their heads to Christ and allow the blade to sever their soul to God. O West, look to your Eastern Brothers and arise from the dead. Prepare yourself for the antichrist who denies that Christ, God, came in the Flesh. Understand, O peoples, that Islam denies that Christ is God. And finally, understand that Christ's kingdom is not of this earth, the kingdom and 1,000 reign of Christ is within you! Do not become Jewish in your expectations for a Messiah and miss His visitation which comes to you by holy baptism and Eucharist. Let Him who has ears to hear, HEAR.

Controversial Christian said...

In the UK, the biggest proponents of diversity and multiculturalism tend to be white, affluent, privately educated men and women! Similar to the Hollywood thing, I think. The premise of equality and anti racism is good, but when most people in politics and the media and well paid industries tend to be largely white affluent and privately educated, it is rather like the time honoured pontificating of the cosseted wealthy talking about their 'concern' for the poor, whilst doing little but paying lip service to it. Ho hum.

Anonymous said...

Good site.