From the seducing tribesman to the controlling sheik to the bomb-wielding terrorist, Hollywood has consistently broad brushed Arabs with caricature and cliché. But can an Arab be an American film hero? Hollywood is starting to believe that he can.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: At the beginning of this year, we spoke with film historian Jack Shaheen, the author of Reel Bad Arabs -- that's "reel" with two E's. Shaheen is the narrator of a new film version of the book, also called Reel Bad Arabs, and it's packed with examples of Hollywood's most durable demeaning stereotype.
Take the 1994 Schwarzenegger action flick, True Lies. [CLIP:] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MAN: One turn of that key, two million of your people will die instantly. MAN #2: What key? MAN: That key. Who's taken the key? [END CLIP] JACK SHAHEEN: They simply act stupid. They are stupid. But at the same time, they threaten to kill us. So their stupidity has to be taken seriously. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack says that True Lies marks another new low in the pernicious portrayal of Arabs across a century of American cinema. Back in the era of the silent film, Arabs weren't quite so dumb, but they were certainly dangerous. JACK SHAHEEN: Initially, it was always the Arab Bedouin out to go into the Legionnaire's fort, slaughter each and every member of the Legion and then move to seduce the blonde, blue-eyed virgin, who, of course, was standing there with a pistol in her hand, ready to commit suicide in the event that a Bedouin bandit would, in fact, have the opportunity to seduce her, which, fortunately, he never did. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The image of the Bedouin and the dastardly sheik who commands him have endured in America's imagination forever. But now they're even more threatening, and not just on the big screen. JACK SHAHEEN: Now we are being projected in shows such as 24, Navy NCIS, The Unit, and others, dozens of others, actually, as clones of al Qaeda and clones of Saddam, a threat to our country. Why project American citizens as a threat to their country? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why indeed? In recent times, a few Arab citizens of some European nations have given cause for alarm –- there, but not here.
So why, even long before 9/11, this Hollywood obsession? Habit, says Shaheen, and history.
Do you think this extremist image finds its roots in the Munich Olympics? JACK SHAHEEN: Not only what happened in Munich. I think the Iranian revolution had a part to play. Even though Iranians are not Arabs, most of us think they are. The Arab/Israeli conflict, the oil embargo – I think news headlines play a dominant role in terms of how we project and perceive a people. I also believe that, you know, we were taught to hate all things Arab for so many years, which helped make our going to Iraq that much easier. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arab actors may not be happy with the image their characters project, but they frequently don't have a choice. You take the parts you get until you have enough clout to create your own. That's how Tony Shalhoub created Monk, the hit series about an obsessive-compulsive detective whose ethnicity is unknown and irrelevant. But somehow, actor Sayed Badreya, who has no clout, managed to produce and star in a signature short called T for Terrorist. SAYED BADREYA: It's an actor that's tired of always being cast as the terrorist. So he gets cast as that again, he shows up on set and he actually hijacks the set. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] SAYED BADREYA: And he makes the director [LAUGHS] play the terrorist, and he gets to play the good guy for once. [CLIP:] SAYED BADREYA: Do you guys really think I look like a terrorist? MAN: Kinda. SAYED BADREYA: I can do more than that. I can be the second Cary Gober. MAN: You mean Gary Cooper? SAYED BADREYA: Whatever. [END OF CLIP] SAYED BADREYA: [LAUGHS] That was my story. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sayed Badreya. SAYED BADREYA: Because I used to sit on a set and look at the movie star and the hero and everything, and I said, why not for one day I can be a hero? Why not for one day I can have the girl? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Badreya was a kid growing up in Egypt in the time of the Six-Day War when he was seduced by American movies. When he said he was goin' Hollywood, his friends said he was crazy. But he did. He was a handsome Arab actor. In America, there were no parts for handsome Arab actors, so he grew a beard, put on some weight. SAYED BADREYA: And when I went to the audition, I was angry. And they said, ah, yeah, this is what we're looking for. This is the real thing. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you tell me about some of the bad-guy roles that you played in the eighties and nineties? SAYED BADREYA: Well, I hijack an airplane in Executive Decision. I blew up places in True Lies. I kidnapped people. I've done everything -- bad. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, he worked, though his parts found little favor in the Arab-American community. Then, not long ago, his friend Peter Farrelly – yes, of the infamous Farrelly brothers – told him it was time to produce something from his heart. So Badreya made American East, a film about an Arab-American family man who opens up a restaurant with his best friend, who's Jewish. The friend is played by Tony Shalhoub. The goal, the depiction of ordinary men.
SAYED BADREYA: For my kids –- I don't want my kid to change his name from Muhammad to Michael because the Arab image is bad. No. I want him to have his name, Muhammad, and Muhammad doesn't mean terrorist. And that's what we bring in American East -– to talk about an Arab-American family who struggled after 9/11. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nine-eleven must figure into any discuss of Arab images in America. It should have made a bad situation worse but, in fact, it hasn't. Jack Shaheen says that maybe 90 percent of Arab images post-9/11 are still shallow and demeaning. But -- JACK SHAHEEN: The encouraging news is there have been several post-9/11 films –- Babel, Kingdom of Heaven, Syriana -– where there have been portraits presenting Arabs as we see other people, no better, no worse. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now it's time to refine the portraits of Arab-Americans, says Sayed Badreya. SAYED BADREYA: Hollywood has to learn that we are American that happen to be Arab. We are American because we choose to come to this country. What is America? I grew up in a ghetto and I end up in Hollywood doing movie with movie star George Clooney and all this stuff. That's America. It gives you the dream, but you have to work for it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Badreya's new film, American East, has not yet found a distributor. The film version of Reel Bad Arabs opens in New York City this week. Cannonball Run II, hopefully, will never be seen again. [CLIP:] MAN: Here, my desert blossom. Keep the change. Have you ever considered joining a harem? [END OF CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited - by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer, with help this week from Bill O'Neill. We also had help from Jessica Magaldi and Ian Whitehead. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [FUNDING CREDITS]