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A Tribute To Jack Shaheen And His Groundbreaking Work On ‘Reel Bad Arabs’

“Though the movie may contain compelling cinematography and engrossing performances, as history,” “Lawrence of Arabia” “receives a failing grade,” renowned media critic Jack Shaheen wrote. “Throughout, the theme of cultural domination prevails—the civilized British conquering civilized folks.”

Shaheen continued, “After all, the movie concerns a brave Englishman, not a valiant Arab. Lawrence surfaces as an Arabian sun god, uniting the Arabs. His courage and intelligence saves their lives; his strategy crushes the Turks, and he gives them Damascus.”

“[Director David Lean] and his crew should not be faulted for concentrating on Lawrence, even though he was not a desert savior but rather an important intermediary between the British and the Arabs. But Lean should be soundly criticized for distorting history at the expense of the Arabs.”

In 2004, Shaheen said during an American University event that Disney had possibly done “more damage to Americans of Arab heritage and Arabs worldwide than any studio in the past decade.” Disney, he added, had produced at least one film a year since 1992 that in one way or another has focused on Arabs as the cultural other (including “Kazaam,” “Father of the Bride, Part II,” “Hidalgo,” and “Aladdin”).

Shaheen, a Lebanese American, who spent decades of his life challenging stereotypes of Arabs in film and television, died on July 9.

His seminal work, “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,” took about twenty years of research to complete, as he collected and uncovered around 900 examples of representations for the book. It was later made into a documentary and represents a blueprint for challenging an escalation of anti-Arab racism in the world by contesting culture.

Critic Roger Ebert described films as “machines that generate empathy.” Shaheen recognized how an industry pumping stereotypes out of these “machines” instead generated prejudice. It viscerally upset him, and he dedicated his work to eradicating the practice of routinely portraying Arabs, including Muslim Arabs, in vile and degrading ways.

Shaheen focused on five major stereotypes: villains, sheikhs, maidens, Egyptians, and Palestinians.

The Lack of Human Dramas Revealing Palestinians As ‘Normal Folk’

When it came to Palestinian representations, he stood firmly against the hate promoted in the U.S. and Israel.

“Absent from Hollywood’s Israeli-Palestinian movies are human dramas revealing Palestinians as normal folk—computer specialists, domestic engineers, teachers, and artists,” Shaheen wrote in his 2001 book, “Reel Bad Arabs.” “No movie shows Israeli soldiers and settlers uprooting olive orchards, gunning down Palestinian civilians in Palestinian cities. No movie shows Palestinian families struggling to survive under occupation, living in refugee camps, [and] striving to have their own country and passports stating ‘Palestine.'”

He called special attention to “Black Sunday” (1977), the first major film to show Palestinians “terrorizing and killing Americans on U.S. soil.” It was directed by John Frankenheimer and starred Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern. The film presents Dahlia, a Palestinian terrorist, and her cohort Fasil. They plan to massacre 80,000 people at the Super Bowl, including a president look-alike who resembles Jimmy Carter.

Almost all of the films made in Israel, which Shaheen surveyed, displayed Palestinians as violent, sex-crazed individuals, “bastards [and] animals” challenging Westerners, Israelis, or fellow Arabs.

The 1999 remake of the Boris Karloff classic, “The Mummy,” starring Brendan Fraser, possibly exemplified the worst of Egyptian stereotypes. Shaheen noted how alive and revived Egyptians appeared as “hostile, sneaky, and dirty caricatures.” In a scene in the City of Dead, Jonathan (John Hannah) complains of an odor in the burial chamber. “Where’d our smelly friend go to?” The camera moves quickly to an Egyptian.

Shaheen never hesitated to challenge film reviewers and writers for their lack of attention to prejudicial Arab representations. He recognized they played a role in allowing vile images to become accepted as fair and true by audiences.

In 2001, while there were books on stereotypes of black Americans, women, Jewish people, Latinos, as well as other ethnic groups, noticeably Arabs had gone ignored. For example, Andrew Dowdy wrote, “The Films of the Fifties: The American State of Mind.” Shaheen found 100 films released during this time period with Arab caricatures, but Dowdy never highlighted any of them in his work.

Women, oftentimes depicted as maidens, were largely humiliated, demonized, or eroticized in the films he surveyed. They appeared as belly dancers with big bosoms, whose eyes were leering from behind veils. Or Arab women would be shown completely covered.

“By covering the reel Arab women in black, the costumer links her with oppression,” Shaheen maintained. “But throughout the Arab world, from Bahrain to Lebanon, women wear a whole variety of apparel. Some don the traditional black cloaks and veils; others dress in the latest Western fashions, whether it be jeans, designer dresses, or bikinis.”

Two Of The Most Appalling Films: “The Siege” & “Rules Of Engagement”

Two of the most appalling films Shaheen roundly critiqued and condemned were “The Siege” (1998) and “Rules of Engagement” (2000).

The 2000 film centered on a scenario in which a military colonel must defend making the call to massacre Yemenis outside an American embassy. It was produced with the support of the Defense Department and apparently inspired by a story from former Secretary of the Navy James Webb.

“Director William Friedkin has actor Samuel Jackson exploiting jingoistic prejudice and religious bigotry. The effects of ethnic exploitation are especially obvious in scenes revealing egregious false images of Yemeni children as assassins and enemies of the United States,” Shaheen described.

“To my knowledge, no Hollywood WWI, WWII, or Korean War movie has ever shown America’s fighting forces slaughtering children. Yet, near the conclusion of ‘Rules of Engagement,’ US Marines open fire on the. Yemenis, shooting 83 men, women, and children. During the scene, viewers rose to their feet, clapped, and cheered.” Friedkin boasted about the fact that audiences responded in this manner.

As Shaheen recognized, “Some viewers applaud Marines gunning down Arabs in war dramas not necessarily because of cultural insensitivity but because for more than 100 years Hollywood has singled out the Arab as our enemy. Over a period of time, a steady stream of bigoted images does, in fact, tarnish our judgment of a people and their culture.”

“The Siege,” starring Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, and Annette Bening, was “especially alarming” to Shaheen because it depicted a scenario, where Arab immigrants “methodically [laid] waste to Manhattan. Assisted by Arab American auto mechanics, university students, and a college teacher, they [blew] up the city’s FBI building, [killed] scores of government agents, and [detonated] a bomb in a crowded bus.”

Shaheen recalled, “I discussed the movie’s violent images with director Edward Zwick in New York on April 2, 1998. Zwick told me that because some scenes show innocent Arab Americans being tossed indiscriminately into detention centers the film would ‘provoke thought.’ Provoke violence, more likely, I thought.”

“I pointed out that his scenario may be fiction, but the terrorists’ on-screen killings take place in a real city—the Arabs are rounded up in Brooklyn, where many peace-loving Arab Americans reside. After watching reel Arab terrorists murder more than 700 New Yorkers, I said, some viewers may think that Arab Americans belong in those camps.”

Zwick defended his film, noting Tony Shalhoub played a “decent Arab American FBI agent.” His defense reminded Shaheen of how “yesteryear’s producers tried to justify their hostile depictions of American Indians. In movies showing savage Indians massacring settlers, they would point to Tonto, claiming balance.”

The vile images in this 1998 film, which was written by Lawrence Wright, are all the more remarkable given it was produced before the September 11th attacks. In fact, after 9/11, there were innocent Arabs rounded up and put into detention indefinitely and without charge. Their rights were violated.

Americans largely thought nothing of the rounding up of Arabs, and one wonders to what extent images from Hollywood have helped to ensure Americans do not show empathy to Arabs, who suffer this kind of injustice.

Working As a Consultant For “Three Kings”

Shaheen managed to gain some influence in Hollywood and worked as a consultant on the film, “Three Kings” (1999). It takes place in Iraq after the Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm and centers on three American soldiers, played by George Clooney, Ice Cube, and Mark Wahlberg.

Initially, Shaheen pointed out that 100 of the 136 pages had scenes with Iraqis killing Iraqis and GIs killing Iraqis. He advised Warner Brothers not to make the film. However, producer Charles Roven responded by enlisting Shaheen to help “enrich the various Iraqi characters” and assist the production in staying away from stereotypes.

“My one-year working relationship with Roven and his colleague was exemplary. To the studio’s credit, Roven, director David Russell, and co-producer Doug Segal worked diligently attempting to avoid perpetuating the ‘seen one, seen ’em all’ cliché. They made significant aterations to the screenplay, revealing a failed US policy that allowed Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards to advance the suffering of those courageous Iraqi rebels opposing him.”

“Three Kings” also featured a “wide range of Iraqis,” from those who were devout Muslims to children to freedom fighters. Islam was revered, not degraded. Women who wore black, like the Iraqi rebel leader’s wife, were depicted as real people and did not appear as “mute, faceless objects.” (On top of that, it was a well-produced film.)

No Film, Even Award-Winning Films, Deserve A Pass For Promoting Prejudice

Shaheen never shied away from condemning works that were award-winning or regarded in the industry as the best films of all time.

“Gladiator” (2000), directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, won the Oscar for Best Picture. That did not stop Shaheen from calling attention to the ridiculous insertion of a band of Arab slavers into the film.

“No band of defected combatants, yet alone far-off Arab slavers, could ever invade the homes of Roman soldiers. I have found nobody specializing in Roman history, who knows of any small band of Arab slavers plundering Rome’s soldiers’ homes from AD 180 to 1483.”

Paddy Chayefsky won an Oscar for his script for “Network” (1976). However, as much as this film may appeal to progressives, he detested the fact that it centered on Arab oil conglomerates seeking to control an American television network, when there was no such effort happening in the 1970s to inspire this key aspect of the story.

“Would it be acceptable for Chayefsky to label Israelis ‘medieval fanatics,’ who control U.S. media, who are ‘buying us’?” Shaheen asked.

He always believed the reason why there was such a history of anti-Arab racism in American cinema is because Americans remained largely silent. So, through his work, he made certain fewer citizens could claim ignorance, giving over 1,000 lectures in nearly every state and on three continents.

“Americans fed up with Hollywood’s anti-Arab scenarios should consider emulating Howard Beale’s plan of action,” he declared. “If more ‘people speak’ up, notably Arab Americans, if they were ‘to stand up and fight for [their] heritage,’ and if they were to become ‘mad as hell’ and decide not ‘to take this [Arab bashing] anymore and send six million telegrams’ to the White House protesting Hollywood’s Arab portraits, perhaps, a ‘radiant eruption’ of humane Arab images would appear on movie screens.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."