I’ve always loved Oscar season. Don’t get me wrong — I understand how frivolous it may seem to some: Rich, famous people giving little gold statues to other rich, famous people. But to me, I see it as a celebration of an art form and the people who work to understand and explain the human condition through cinema.
Movies are an opportunity to explore the lives and areas of the world otherwise not easily available to the audience. They can be passports to a better understanding of the human experience and in turn can fight preconceptions or overgeneralization.
However, in this award cycle, two movies completely reject these possibilities. “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” both nominated for Best Picture, demonize a race of people, their religion and their culture.
Both movies are set in the Middle East and are based on true stories centered around American characters. “Argo,” directed by Ben Affleck, is the story of the CIA’s effort to extract six fugitive Americans from Iran during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The entire movie focuses on how the hapless American bureaucrats can escape the country without being recognized by the mobs of bearded Persian men.
In the movie, there is only a single Iranian character who does not seem intent on capturing and torturing the fugitives (Sahar, the housekeeper at the Canadian ambassador’s house). Otherwise, an entire race of people is made to look like a crazed mob, inherently dangerous to the lives of Americans.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is guilty of the same crime. In the movie, which chronicles the hunt for and assassination of Osama bin Laden, all Arabs are suspect. Again, there is a single Arab man who is “good” and appears on screen for less than a minute. But his small role does not counteract the negative typification of the rest of his race.
In one scene, “Zero Dark Thirty” even demonizes the full-length black abayas that are sometimes worn by Muslim women. CIA agents don the abayas as disguises to kill a suspected terrorist, but when the firefight begins, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who is on which side. While these men in abayas do end up being on “our side,” they nonetheless continue the idea that Muslim women’s coverings are suspicious and are hiding places for violence.
Some may argue these generalization is necessary: Most movies need a clearly defined bad guy. While this may be true in the world of film, the specific typification of Arab and Persian Muslims as gun-toting terrorists has deeper ramifications in the world where the struggle between American troops and terrorists is very real.
The effect these movies have can be seen in the Twitter conversations about them. For example, tweets like “Zero Dark Thirty makes me want to shoot at Arabs with assault rifles” or “That awkward moment when you’re sitting in the movie theater for Zero Dark Thirty and the back two rows are filled with Arabs #DontKillMe” clearly demonstrate how the movie affected some viewers.
Instead of creating a discussion about the nuanced relations between the U.S. and the Arab world, these movies create hate and mistrust toward it. Notice the two tweets do not mention anything about mistrusting terrorists but instead are aimed at the Arab race as a whole.
“Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo” are not alone: They are part of a larger trend that has been occurring for decades. Hollywood has been mixing the words “Arab,” “Muslim” and “violence” together for many years. The writers and executives have forgotten those words are mutually exclusive – just because one word applies to a character does not mean the others must also apply.
Actor Bashar Daas has been in Los Angeles for many years attempting to break into the film industry. Though he has been successful, the stereotyping in the movies frustrates him and makes it hard to find good roles.
"If it is really a good film, then it is always a terrorist role,” Daas told Reuters. “But I did not go to America to stab my people in the back.”
The movies have trained audiences to assume an Arab man with a gun is automatically a Muslim extremist bent on the destruction of America. Though typecasting is a shortcut to developing characters in movies, it soon becomes a shortcut to developing prejudice in the minds of audience members.
This award season, do not allow movies that create racism and stereotyping to triumph. Champion movies, instead, that explore other ways of life without condemning and generalizing.
Hopefully someday Hollywood will produce a movie that shows the other side of the Middle East. Maybe someday Hollywood will make a movie that emphasizes the peaceful side of Islam, the large majority practicing a faith that reflects this quote from the Koran: "…whosoever killeth a human being...it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind."
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