Covering Cinema From All Across The African Diaspora

Reel Bad Arabs - We're All In This Together!


As a black filmmaker, I've always prided myself on being sensitive of my portrayals of those marginalized groups of people, notably people of color and women.

I've sometimes passed, and other times failed "the test." But the more I make myself aware of how other marginalized groups feel about their representation, or lack thereof, by the Hollywood machine - undoubtedly the preeminent film production and distribution power in the world - I realize just how deeply ingrained many of the stereotypes have become in my psyche, albeit unconsciously, and later manifest themselves in my thoughts, as well as my actions.

In watching the clip below, I realized just how desensitized I've become towards the pejorative portrayals of Arabs in Hollywood films. I have been challenged in my acceptance of many of these films as strictly pure entertainment, when in fact they have essentially taught me what to think about an entire group of people. It goes to show just how powerful cinema is, something which I've talked about several times on my podcast. What we pass off as mindless entertainment is actually not as mindless as we think, because the repeated use of these derogatory images, fed to us ad nauseam, does have some impact, often negative, especially if we are almost never exposed to anything to the contrary. It's truly a dangerous dynamic.

Even what seem like the most harmless of films, something like the Disney animated ALADDIN, reinforce these dangerous, uninformed stereotypes, maybe somewhat subtly, or packaged in a wave of lush colors, cute song and dance, and mawkishness, and are then seen by millions of people, notably, sadly mostly children.

There have been films produced by Hollywood in cooperation with the Department of Defense, showing American men and women in the Armed Forces killing Arabs at random, like the Arnold Schwarzenegger box office smash, TRUE LIES, the Jamie Foxx starrer, THE KINGDOM, as well as films like NAVY SEALS, IRON EAGLE and RULES OF ENGAGEMENT. I had no idea that a film like RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, was co-written by Senator James Webb of Virginia, who also served as Secretary of the U.S. Navy under Ronald Reagan. So with Washington solidifying its connection with Hollywood, there'll likely be a bias, probably an intentional one - in essence going out of their way to reinforce our fears of Arabs as terrorists, making it significantly easier for our government to convince us into buying a so-called "war on terror;" something we all should be well aware of.

But as I started off saying... I feel obligated to make myself aware of the portrayals of marginalized groups on screen, not only because I'm a filmmaker, but as a fellow human being - one who has been fighting this battle against Hollywood's destructive stereotypes, notably of people with my skin color. And as I make myself aware, via literature I've read, or communication with people from other marginalized groups, I'm forced to confront many of my prejudices, and reexamine my attraction to certain films I've seen in the past. For example, films like DO THE RIGHT THING, or SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT - both hailed as treasured works within the realm of black cinema, and even in broader circles; but when dissected with a feminist slant (as was done so eloquently and extensively in a book called Redefining Black Film), they were revealed to be counter-feminist, misogynist and just plain old sexist (SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT notably) in their presentation of black women and their sexuality - facts I was completely oblivious of upon initially seeing these films, but which have now tainted my perception of the films, and in turn the filmmaker... not to disastrous effect, but enough that I'm now significantly more critical of Spike Lee's work than I ever was.

There have been several films that I loved upon initially screening them; but with this growing awareness and sensitivity, I feel obligated to be overtly critical of those films I see that reinforce stereotypes, especially of those "invisible" people (to borrow from Ellison), or that follow trends of marginalization. It makes for very unpleasant viewing experiences, which partly explains why I haven't seen many films recently; and I often wonder if I'm being too critical. However, with what I now know, and continue to learn, I just don't see how I could not be.

The following clip is from a documentary called REEL BAD ARABS: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. You can buy the film here:


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