Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 3 (March 2002)

Reel Arabs

Now the danger is that all Arabs-some 265 million people in 22 Arab states plus 3.5 million in the US and millions more living around the world-will be stereotyped as terrorists in films and animations. Unfortunately, characterizing Arabs in this way has been the norm rather than the exception in the film industry since its inception. "From 1896 until today, filmmakers have collectively indicted all Arabs as Public Enemy No. 1-brutal, heartless, uncivilized, religious fanatics and money-mad cultural 'others' bent on terrorizing Westerners," writes Shaheen in his latest book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.

For his research, Shaheen reviewed nearly every Hollywood movie that featured Arabs-more than 900 films in all. His intent was to "expose an injustice: cinema's systematic, pervasive, and unapologetic degradation and dehumanization of a people." Some examples he cites include The Mummy, The Prince of Egypt, Aladdin, Back to the Future, and The Fifth Element.

The fear is that this practice has fueled the fires of hatred, which were ignited by the September 11 terrorism. According to the Arab American Institute, in the first month following the attacks, there were more than 325 hate crimes against Arab Americans, including some 90 physical assaults and seven deaths.

Another worry is that the stereotyping will not only persist, but increase. Indeed, according to Lock Wolverton, an animator, producer, and instructor at the Disney Institute, "some producers now feel like they need to depict Mid-Easterners as terrorists as much as possible."

But can movie makers produce films about terrorism without stigmatizing all Arabs? I believe so. Animators and special effects artists are certainly skillful enough to represent terrorists as fanatic extremists and to create unique personalities rather than stereotypical characters. And in many cases, they can have a say in how a project is done to avoid branding an entire culture.

In any event, the entertainment industry should avoid furthering discrimination between ethnic groups around the world. This is not what people want or need. "Filmmakers and animators have an opportunity and a responsibility," says Stuart Sumida, a film industry advisor at California State University. "With the talent they have, they could be ambassadors for people in the US and the rest of the world." If they send the right messages, they could have a profound effect.