Don’t get me wrong, I love movies. As an Arab American, though, I favor a film genre where the villains are not human: Science fiction. Nothing pushes humans to come together and forget their differences or hatred of one other more than the fear of a greater threat, like aliens.
It was something my parents passed on to me as a young child. Mom and Dad were refugees of varying degrees from the Israeli destruction of Palestine in 1947-48. They chose to avoid films that portrayed Arabs as villains, even when they were the most celebrated releases in the world. The movies we watched were Westerns, a genre about cowboys killing Indians, especially those featuring gun-toting Hollywood tough guy John Wayne.
Wayne didn’t kill Arabs in his movies. I realized that we had merely substituted Native American suffering for Arab suffering. That was wrong, but did we have a choice?
Hollywood produces a conveyer belt of films that demonize people for profit. It’s a sick form of entertainment, which often has a political purpose. The villains were Chinese, then blacks, then Asians and Native Americans. And then it was the ultimate quintessential villain, the Arabs. And that crown has not been taken from us yet.
Although there continues to be exploitation of other ethnic groups, they are given balance — or maybe they created that balance themselves. In many instances where there are negative portrayals of blacks, Asians or Native Americans in today’s movies, they are balanced by positive portrayals of the same people. That’s the kind of balance denied to Arabs. When Arabs are demonized, it’s unrivalled.
In recent years, many of the worst Hollywood movie offenders have moved away from demonizing Arabs, which comes from the movement to reject religious hatred against Muslims. Americans generally think every Muslim is an Arab, and every Arab is a Muslim. Maybe that’s because the majority are.
If Hollywood won’t acknowledge the story of Arab suffering, we should tell it ourselves — after all, there is enough material to fill a compendium of tragedies.Ray Hanania
Yes, it is happening in America. “Muslims” are receiving respect and recognition, although not as much as they deserve, while “Arab” remains the “four-letter word,” a euphemism for profanity.
There have been a few moments in Oscar history that I’ve written about where Arab pride has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of hatred to confront Hollywood’s vicious, anti-Arab agenda. In 1978, actress Vanessa Redgrave courageously stood up to bullying by pro-Israel fanatics who were protesting outside the Academy Awards, only to be maligned by anti-Arab filmmaker Paddy Chayefsky inside. Redgrave produced a documentary called “The Palestinians,” which celebrated the struggle of the Palestinians against Israeli oppression, while Chayefsky is the producer of one of the most infamous anti-Arab movies, “Network.”
No institution has done more harm to the image of Arabs than Hollywood. And yet, what have Arabs done about it? We go to movie theaters and shrug off the hate-filled anti-Arab moments and characters. We turn on our television sets and watch commercial after commercial promoting new remakes of pro-Israel movies that defame Palestinian history. How many movies were made about the 1972 Palestinian terrorist attack against Israeli athletes in Munich before filmmaker Steven Spielberg tried to present it in a more balanced manner? Spielberg was denounced by Israel’s government for making his 2005 version of the attack, “Munich,” because the movie included insight into Palestinian suffering as a cause of the violent resistance.
Did you know that if you push people too far, too hard, and too long, they will one-day stand up and fight back? Maybe we Arabs continue to return to the theaters and our television sets hoping that someone has found another way.
Yet it has now been 40 years since that brief moment when Arabs across America were able to stand up and cheer Redgrave’s courage, pumping our fists into the air in pride, to counter years of movie oppression. Forty years have passed, and is that one moment is all we can cling to when it comes to presenting our tragic story to the world in film?
Where is the movie about Palestine’s Munich, Israel’s repeated massacre of civilians in Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014? Or movies about other Israeli atrocities like Sabra and Shatila, Deir Yassin or Kafr Qassem, which are part of a long list that should be detailed in indictments in the hands of prosecutors at the International Criminal Court?
Is it because Arab suffering has been too great that our stories have never made it to the big screen? Are the stories too gruesome? Is it because Arabs lack the resources or talent to tell our own story? Must we always be disappointed that our story of genuine suffering and tragedy fails to make it to the silver screen?
If Hollywood won’t acknowledge our story, we should tell it ourselves. We should create our own Oscars and call it the “Abdullahs,” my conception of a platinum statue with an arm raised high celebrating achievement in the story-telling of real tragedy in human behavior.
It’s not like there isn’t enough material out there to fill a compendium of Palestinian and Arab tragedies.
Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian American columnist and author. Reach him at his website TheDailyHookah.com.