Aladdin. Back to the Future. True Lies. It isn’t everyday that you hear these three movies mentioned in the same breath, but for Dr. Jack Shaheen the link is clear. For thirty years, Shaheen, professor emeritus of mass communication at Southern Illinois University, has been studying the misrepresentation of Arabs and Muslims in film, particularly movies coming out of Hollywood. His conclusion: that Arabs and Muslims are the single most maligned and attacked group in the history of film. “If the case went before a jury, they’ll be out for 30 seconds and they will agree,” he says over the phone from his home in Illinois. Over the next few months, viewers can be will be the jury themselves as Shaheen tours North America with Reel Bad Arabs, the 2006 documentary based on his 2001 book of the same name.
While it’s a pretty sweeping judgment to make – there are plenty of racial, religious or political groups that would argue they’ve been consistently misrepresented by Hollywood – Shaheen backs up his claims with plenty of proof. Reel Bad Arabs, both film and book, are the result of nearly 20 years work, during which Shaheen viewed and analysed 950 films. Of those, only 5 percent showed Arabs of Muslims in a positive – or at least benign – light. “No one group has ever been, one, vilified in that many films, and two, vilified for more than a century,” he explains.
The Media Education Foundation documentary, which premiered last November to a sold out audience at the Dubai International Film Festival, features the affable Shaheen presenting his findings between clips of everything from Hollywood blockbusters like Rules of Engagement to little known b-movies like Hell Squad (where Las Vegas show girls are trained as commandos to stop nuclear bomb wielding Arabs).
This formula for a film – talking head plus clips – could be boring, but the presence of extracts from popular films, an intriguing topic, and the personable Shaheen himself make the film an easy watch. Most people will catch themselves re-thinking films they grew up loving, and questioning just how easy it is to buy into Hollywood’s story-telling and ignore the underlying racism. Even Shaheen admits that one of his favourite movies, the brilliant 1970 Network, falls prey to using the “Arab bogeyman.”
Neither is the documentary devoid of political relevance. Shaheen admirably shows how US foreign policy and Hollywood are often mutually reinforcing: policy influences media, media influences policy-makers. “We were killing Arabs on the silver screen for decades, so when all of a sudden we decide to go into Iraq, we were used to it – and it certainly didn’t hurt to have this history of stereotypes behind us,” says Shaheen. “In a sense all these films, intentionally or unintentionally, serve as propaganda against all things Arab and Islam.”
But through all this, Shaheen is hopeful. In his new book, Guilty? Hollywood’s Verdict of Arabs after 9/11, due out this summer, Shaheen looks at about 100 more films, half having been produced since 9/11, and sees a stark improvement from his previous work. About 30 percent, including such recent hits as Syriana and Babel, were at least favorable to Arabs and Muslims. While television – with popular shows such as 24 and Sleeper Cell invariably depicting ‘home-grown terrorists’ lurking around every corner – is lagging far behind film, Shaheen sees a general improvement overall
“I’m optimistic primarily for one reason, and that is that the industry and Americans per se, all of us per se, have a tendency to shed our prejudices against other people. And that’s history, I’m basing my optimism on history.”
Tim McSorley is a member of the editorial collective of Montreal based Siafu Magazine. A shorter version of this article appeared in the magazine’s March/April issue.