November 1, 1998
Hollywood Now Plays Cowboys and Arabs
Clips from the film 'The Siege,' plus director Edward Zwick's thoughts on portraying the Arab community
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By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
rab-American actor Sayed Badreya has had no problem finding work in Hollywood. With his dark beard and his accented English, he has had his pick of parts as terrorists, hijackers, kidnappers and Islamic militants.
"Usually I play the bad guy role, a terrorist or someone," Badreya said by telephone from Egypt, where he is on a film shoot with Al Pacino, playing the head of the military wing of Hezbollah.
Bill Foley/20th Century Fox
In "The Seige," martial law is declared in New York during a fight for terrorists, and Arab-Americans are herded into a detention camp.
"When I got to Hollywood, at first I couldn't get a lot of jobs," Badreya said. "So I grew a beard and look like a really bad Arab, and I started to get a lot of work because that's what they want."
After years of virtual invisibility, Arab-Americans are finally finding prominence in Hollywood movies -- as terrorists and villains. They are only the latest in a long line of ethnic groups and nationalities cast in sterotypical bad-guy roles, from American Indians to Germans to Japanese to African Americans to Russians.
Each set of villains reflected the headlines and the anxieties of its era. Each passed into obsolescence as the headlines changed. Now, with Soviet pretensions shattered and aliens from outer space passe, the new cinematic enemy is the Muslim extremist.
The latest film of this genre is "The Siege," which opens Friday and stars Denzel Washington, Annette Bening and Bruce Willis. Trailers for "The Siege" reduced it to the typical terrorist scare-fare with exploding buses and shadowy images of men in mosques, but the full-length film is a cut above. "The Siege" posits the dangers to democracy and freedom when the United States. military, in pursuit of a terrorist cell operating in New York City, imposes martial law and herds the entire Arab-American population of Brooklyn into a detention camp.
Despite this rather mixed portrayal of Arab-Americans as both victims and perpetrators, several anti-defamation organizations representing American Muslims and Arabs are undertaking a leaflet-distributing campaign outside theaters showing "The Siege." They point out that there is no avoiding the fact that its villains are Arabs who quote the Koran and perform ablutions before heading off to blow up innocent civilians. The anti-defamation groups' leaflets emphasize that Islam is a peaceful, monotheistic religion and invite moviegoers to attend open houses at local mosques.
The sensitivities of American Muslims and Arabs are so raw right now because "The Siege" follows a succession of more than a dozen films and made-for-television movies produced in the 1980s and '90s featuring murderous Muslim fanatics, among them "Executive Decision," "True Lies," "Voyage of Terror" and "Terrorist on Trial."
"The problem is, you take the lunatic fringe and make the lunatic fringe represent the majority," said Jack Shaheen, a professor emeritus of broadcast journalism at Southern Illinois University. "It would be like showing that every Catholic is an IRA member, or every Jew was a member of the Kach party." He was referring to extremist factions in Ireland and Israel.
There are between 4 and 6 million Muslims living in the United States. Some are white or African American converts. Some are new immigrants. Many are first- and second-generation Americans striving for acceptance and success, much like the other ethnic groups who came before them.
The voices of the small circle of Muslims and Arab-Americans who work in Hollywood are rarely heard in the discussion about movie stereotypes. They have never formed any group to represent their concerns. But among them, while there is less outrage than that expressed by the anti-defamation groups based in Washington, there is more frustration. The Muslim actors and writers, and the sole identifiable Muslim director-producer, have an insider's perspective on the reasons their religion is so often stereotyped in Hollywood, and whether anything can be done about it.
They acknowledge that one reason Muslim terrorists have become frequent Hollywood fare is that terrorists who kill in the name of Islam are a genuine threat in international politics.
"We cannot say there are no Arab and no Muslim terrorists," said Moustapha Akkad, an Arab-American producer and director who was born in Syria and who has worked in Hollywood for 45 years. "Of course there are.
"But at the same time, balance it with the image of the normal human being, the Arab-American, the family man," Akkad said. "The lack of anyone showing the other side makes it stand out that in Hollywood, Muslims are only terrorists."
Earlier in his career, Akkad produced and directed two films portraying Muslims as heroes. "The Message" (1977) told the story of the beginning of Islam, and "Lion of the Desert" (1981) starred Anthony Quinn as the real-life Bedouin leader Omar Mukhtar, who fought Mussolini's invading troops in the deserts of Libya.
But Akkad said that raising money for such films was difficult, and that to achieve financial success and creative freedom, he had had to turn to another genre. He is now better known as the executive producer of all seven movies in the "Halloween" horror series, the most recent, "Halloween H2O," released in August.
And like many Muslims interviewed for this story, including the actor Badreya, Akkad is at work on a screenplay that he hopes will help countradict the stereotypes about Muslims. Akkad's project is about the Crusades.
Anyone acquainted with real Muslims and Arab-Americans living in this country knows that their lives are rich with potential plot lines: crises of faith, cross-cultural tensions, daughters and sons marrying outside the faith. These are some of the same dramatic themes often tapped in movies about Roman Catholics or Jews.
But J.D. Hall, an actor and scriptwriter who is Muslim, said: "I've never come across a script about Muslims where they weren't terrorists. Islam as a way of life, and the people that follow it -- I've seen documentaries but never a dramatic adaptation involving that. My suspicion, based on experience, is that if you came up with something like that, you'd have a devil of a time getting it made because it doesn't involve hate."
Hall, an African American who has appeared in numerous black family sitcoms like "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," says that while African Americans have had a modest measure of success as writers and directors in Hollywood, Muslims and Arab-Americans are far behind.
"We don't have any political power in this country," Hall said of Muslims in America. "And we don't have the decision-making capacity in the motion picture industry, so we can't control our own image."
Though they hesitate to raise the issue, Muslims and Arabs in Hollywood say that the preponderance of powerful Jews in the movie industry is probably a factor, but not the cause of, negative stereotypes of Muslims.
"I don't want to paint all Jews with one broad brush," said Hall, "but there's a Zionist element that is definitely against Islam, and to the degree you sympathize with that element, if you have the power to portray Muslims, that portrayal is not going to be favorable."
The more pervasive reason for stereotyping is that few Americans, in Hollywood and elsewhere, have firsthand knowledge of Islam, say American Muslim leaders.
"It is not intentional," said Aslam Abdullah, the Los Angeles-based editor of Minaret Magazine, who recently helped found a Muslim resource center for filmmakers. "It is primarily ignorance. People do not know us. And we have not made any systematic effort to reach out to people."
The most obvious evidence of ignorance is that many movies and television shows, and undoubtedly many Americans, make the mistake of equating Arabs with Muslims. In fact, only about 12 percent of the world's Muslims are Arabs. Far more Muslims live in Malaysia, Indonesia and India than in the Middle East. And most Americans wrongly assume that, conversely, all Arabs are Muslims. The truth is that many Arabs, particularly Palestinians, Lebanese and Egyptians, are Christians. Of the 3 million or so Arab-Americans now living in the United States, a large majority are Christians.
The outlook for Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood is not all bleak. Even Badreya, so often cast as terrorist, played a heroic Arab pilot in 1996's "Independence Day." And a handful of Arab-American and Muslim actors whose skin tone and accent allow them to "pass" have consistently avoided being typecast as terrorists.
F. Murray Abraham, who received an Academy Award for his portrayal of Salieri in "Amadeus," (1984) is among them. (Early in his career, Abraham dropped his first name "Fahrid" to avoid being typecast "as a sour Arab out to kill everyone," he once told an interviewer.)
Abraham, an Orthodox Christian, is the son of a Syrian father and an Italian-American mother.
Tony Shalhoub, an American of Lebanese heritage, has played a Russian, a Jew, several Italians (he was the hapless cab driver on NBC's "Wings" and the temperamental Italian chef in "Big Night") and many nondescript Caucasian Americans. When he first began acting, he was offered roles as a terrorist, he said in an interview. But "once you start turning them down," he added, "they stop calling with those roles."
One twist in the controversy over "The Siege" is that the film offered Shalhoub a sophisticated and nuanced role as an Arab-American. Shalhoub plays Frank Haddad, an FBI agent whose loyalty to the United States is tested when his son is among those rounded up for detention.
Edward Zwick, the director of "The Siege," pointed out that Haddad is "the single rounded character in this movie.
"He's the only one with whom we even imagine a life, see him at home, with his family. He is not gratuitous or token at all."
In interviews, both Zwick and Lawrence Wright, the film's principal screenwriter, defended the Arab-terrorist scenario of "The Siege" as legitimate and, judging from recent headlines, even prescient.
"Were there a story about Baruch Goldstein," Zwick said, referring to an Israeli militant who murdered 29 Muslims in Hebron in 1994, "and an attack on the mosques, and about Jewish fundamentalism, I would tell that story too. I would not believe that that depiction is inflammatory by talking about marginal characters."
Wright, a journalist who has traveled in the Middle East and worked in Cairo as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war, said: "If I had felt 'The Siege' was anti-Arab, I would have taken my name off of it. The fact is, I'm proud to have my name on it."
Of the criticism from Arab and Muslim anti-defamation groups, Wright said: "I understand their anxiety and paranoia about the way Hollywood has depicted Muslims and Arabs. They're absolutely right. Arabs have been scapegoated. It's disgraceful.
"And yet that's just what this movie is about," he said. "It's all about what happens when you blame a group for the violence of individuals."
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