Hollywood Tells ‘True Lies’ about Arabs

In his 2008 book “Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11,” author Jack Shaheen argues that despite some recent films depicting Arabs in a more sympathetic light, Hollywood’s overall portrayal of Arabs has become increasingly vindictive and detrimental. However, Hollywood’s track record in depicting Arabs prior to 9/11 is also cringe-worthy. The few examples that Shaheen praises may be the first step toward using consistently realistic depictions of Arabs in Hollywood.
“The Kingdom” and “24” are two productions that Shaheen references that are particularly offensive in their depictions of Arabs. Although Shaheen is mostly correct in his assessment of both programs, as they are chock-full of stereotypical “Death to America”-chanting Arab terrorists, they are far from the only depictions of Arabs in such programming.
While the antagonists in “24” differ from season to season, as hero Jack Bauer is continually sent on new missions to uphold justice as part of the Counter Terrorist Unit, Arabs and Arab-Americans often stand in his path. For instance, the latest season of “24” featured Arab enemies ranging from suicidal foot-soldiers such as Hasan Numair, to terrorist mastermind Abu Fayed.
However, terrorists such as Numair and Fayed are not the only Arabs depicted on “24.” For instance, the same season also introduced Nadia Yassir, a woman born in the Middle East who speaks Arabic and holds a high-ranking position in CTU. Despite her credentials, she experiences racial profiling and is accused of leaking information to terrorist organizations. Using this character, the creators of “24” depict the struggles of Arab-Americans on at least a superficial level.
Unlike “24,” “The Kingdom” has a more unbalanced view of Arabs due to the disproportionate number of “Death to America”-chanting Arab terrorists and the lack of a character like Nadia Yassir. Instead, the film’s conflict opens with Arab antagonists who set off a bomb in a Western compound in Saudi Arabia. As the film continues, more Arab antagonists are introduced as Saudi officials and are depicted as hostile toward Americans, who try to investigate the crime. Although there is one pro-Western Saudi official, presented in the form of Colonel al-Ghazi, this is far too little to offset the negative depiction of Arabs already established in the film.
Negative Arab depictions are nothing new and are, in fact, toned down from past decades. For instance, Rudolph Valentino – one of early Hollywood’s first true superstars – had some of his most successful roles in “The Sheik” and “The Son of the Sheik,” films that showcased Arabs as morally depraved murderers, thieves and opportunists.
Although the aforementioned films were made in the 1920s and may be difficult to judge by today’s politically correct standards, unbalanced depictions persisted in Hollywood. One example is the 1994 film “True Lies.” After battling terminators, predators and all manners of beasts, our governor turned his attention toward Arab terrorists in this film. While the film is cartoonish due to its over-the-top violence, it also presents Arabs as terrorists with tunnel vision, aiming to steal warheads by any means necessary.
In comparison, Arabs are no longer depicted as just billionaires, bombers and belly-dancers in films produced since 9/11. In the 2007 film “Rendition,” Anwar El-Ibrahimi is depicted as an intelligent, young professional unjustly accused of terrorism. In the 2005 motion picture “Kingdom of Heaven,” Arabs are depicted as a peaceful people provoked into combat by Christian attackers. In the 2006 film “Babel,” Arabs are shown to be three-dimensional characters. For instance, one character named Yussef admits to a crime when confronted by Western forces and pleads for his family’s acquittal of his actions, despite having accidentally fired a gun at a bus and injuring an American tourist.
While no valid argument can be made that Hollywood has entirely stopped depicting Arabs in a negative light, Hollywood is progressing in the versatility in which it depicts Arabs.

Daniel Johnson is a third-year literary journalism and film and media studies double-major. He can be reached at dcjohnso@uci.edu.