Racial Stereotypes in Hollywood Films. Interview to Dr. Jack G. Shaheen

As a teenager you grow up watching a movie such as True Lies, where the hero, interpreted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, fights a ‘more evil than evil’ Islamic terrorist called Aziz.

After all, the equation Muslim = Hot head had already been made clear to you – and another who knows how many millions of children – in your childhood, when you were watching with awe that beautiful, colourful cartoon produced by Walt Disney called Aladdin, the introduction song of which went: “Oh I come from a far away place where the camel caravans roam / Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric but hey it’s home.”- somewhere unspecified in Arab-Land. Hence, the logical sequence unfolds almost naturally in your mind: A) Muslim countries are full of hot-tempered fundamentalists; B) They’ve hit us; C) It’s right to strike back before they hit us again.

Quite a stretch, maybe… Or maybe not. How strongly has Hollywood been reinforcing racial stereotypes – in particular about Muslims?

I have discussed it in this dialogue with American author Dr. Jack G. Shaheen, former CBS consultant on Middle East affairs, who has devoted his research to addressing ethnic stereotypes.  A professor, author, and professional consultant for films such as Syriana and Three Kings, he has created the Jack G. Shaheen Archive, housed at New York University, which contains some 3,000 films and TV programmes.

When Hollywood Vilifies a People

When Hollywood Vilifies a People

In your book, later turned into a documentary film, Reel Bad Arabs – How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2006), you explained that while in 12 Hollywood films Arab characters stand out for their qualities, in more than 1,000 they are portrayed as ruthless criminals, terrorists or fat sheikhs obsessed with Western women. Has such a derogatory depiction been changing over the last few years?

Unfortunately, these stereotypes persist. Though President Obama has spoken out to condemn them, and in politics, in spite of a more liberal Democratic leadership than the Reagan or Bush administrations, these fixed images continue to pollute minds; they are part of the cultural landscape, especially with presidential candidates such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. The number of vilifying films may have decreased, but those that are still around have become even more dangerous considering the mounting wave of Islamophobia.

Let us take the example of American Sniper, by Clint Eastwood, a movie that is even more damaging than older films like True Lies, where the depiction of Palestinians was almost cartoonish. On the contrary, American Sniper is based supposedly on what happened in Iraq and is a major Hollywood blockbuster. The Iraqi characters in the film, the antagonists of the American Sniper, are totally dehumanised. The Iraqis are presented as acting more like robots – obviously bad, evil robots.

These negative stereotypes have become so entrenched that in some cases they can lead to think that terrorists and fundamentalism are really representative of Islam and Muslims.

Certainly, turmoil in the Middle East doesn’t help, but what is really tragic is that most of the victims of this unrest are Muslim themselves. We talk a lot about ISIS today, but ISIS isn’t even a country, it’s rather a group that can be defined as ‘terrorist rogues’.

However, the people who have a political agenda – or even those who don’t have it – tend to make it appear as though ISIS is representative of the Muslim or Arab world.

Obviously, I strongly condemn the actions of ISIS. These are terrible men, they are the Barbarians of this century in the manner in which they kill innocent people. Their number amounts to maybe 45,000 to 50,000 strong, while we shouldn’t forget that there are 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. There were bombings in Paris and Brussels, but also in Pakistan or Turkey, with many people being killed.

And then you have the rhetoric of Trump and Cruz. When they claim they want to expel Muslims from America, they are actually forgetting that American Muslims reside everywhere—in the military, the police force, the government.

What type of films would you like to see in order to have a more realistic description of Arabs and Muslims?

I’d like to see films that do not portray Arabs and Muslims as terrorists.Then, I’d also like to see the representation of some positive stories, like the one about a Belgian Jew who got injured in one of the Brussels attacks and was helped by an Arab Muslim who went to visit him in hospital to make sure he was doing alright. These are the types of stories that we need.

“Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA,” once said Jack Valenti, former Chairman of the Motion Pictures Association. Not only the film industry, but the main mass media in general often act in a way that strengthens stereotypes and political decisions backed by a large number of people that are based on these stereotypes.

Mass media and political powers reinforce themselves. We need to see Arabs and Muslims as we see other people, no better no worse.

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