In the final minutes of James Cameron’s movie Titanic while the whole ship is sinking, we see an Arab family — a woman wearing a hijab, two children and a father, who is desperately looking up the meanings of the signage in English in a dictionary.
For most Arabs, this six-second scene doesn’t pass easily. Like many other scenes in Hollywood movies, it gives a general look on how Hollywood sees Arabs.
Despite the fact that many Arab/Middle Eastern actors rose to stardom in Hollywood like Omar Sharif (1932-2015), Rami Malek, Mena Masoud and others, still Arabs are often portrayed as either villains, ignorant, rich sheikhs or (of course) terrorists.
In Liam Neeson’s Taken (2008), for example, Arabs are featured as villains who are involved in white slavery. Neeson plays a retired CIA agent who travels to Paris to save his daughter who was abducted and sold to a rich Arab sheikh.
Also the box office hit which has been nominated for six Academy Awards, American Sniper (2014) directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, tells the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper, who became the deadliest marksman in the US military history with 255 kills from four tours in the Iraq War, 160 of which were officially confirmed by the Department of Defense.
Some critics said the film glorifies war because it doesn’t focus on the mass-bloodshed of the Iraq war. Rather, it shows a fairy tale of the sniper’s life.
But, while there have been problematic stereotypes presented by Hollywood, there have also been some positive portrayals.
One significant example of positive representation is the film The Visitor (2007), directed by Tom McCarthy. The film tells the story Walter, a burned out college professor who finds himself unexpectedly sharing his apartment with Tarek, an immigrant from Syria, and Zainab, an immigrant from Senegal. Walter and Tarek become friends, while Zainab begins to trust and respect Walter. The movie explores themes of immigration, cultural exchange, and human connection while presenting a multi-dimensional portrayal of an Arab character.
Also, Aladdin (2019) starring Egyptian-Canadian Mena Massoud has presented a more positive and vibrant portrayal of an Arab character.
However, it seems that Arab filmmakers should continue their struggle and try to show more of their own works in international festivals to help audiences understand or see the real image of Arabs.
Jordanian movie Theeb (2014), directed by Naji Abu Nowar is a remarkable movie which garnered a Best Foreign Language film nomination at the Oscars. This film follows a young Bedouin boy during World War I and provides an intimate look into Bedouin culture and traditions. By showcasing authentic aspects of Arab life without relying on stereotypes or exoticism, Theeboffers a refreshing perspective on Arab storytelling.
Other films which have gained international acclaim for their powerful storytelling and authentic representation of Arab experiences are films like Saudi Arabian Wadjda (2012) directed by Haifaa al-Mansour and Lebanese film Capernaum (2018) directed by Nadine Labaki.
Wadjda is about a 10-year-old girl, who lives in Riyadh and wants to buy a bicycle in order to beat her friend, Abdullah, in a race. The film was nominated in 2014 at BAFTA film Award for Best Film not in the English Language. Also Capernaum tells the story of Zain, a Lebanese boy who sues his parents for the “crime” of giving him life. The movie was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the Oscars in 2019.
But, despite these positive examples, stereotypes still persist in some Hollywood productions. So, it is important for filmmakers to collaborate with Arab writers, directors, actors, and consultants who can provide authentic perspectives on Arab culture and experiences. By including diverse voices behind the camera as well as in front of it, Hollywood will give a more faithful image of Arabs.