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Counterpunch

Ups and Downs of the Latest Schwarzenegger Film : Hasta la Vista, Fairness: Media's Line on Arabs

August 08, 1994|SALAM AL-MARAYATI and DON BUSTANY | Salam Al-Marayati is director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles and Don Bustany is president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee/LA. and

Bashing Arabs and Muslims is the Hollywood wave of the past, the present, and who knows how far into the future. The image--the false image--held by most Americans is a result of selective reporting by the news media (because bad news is what sells), which is then exploited by the entertainment media (because movies need villains). That's how we, and our kids, learn what Arabs and Muslims look like and how they behave.

Writer-director James Cameron, a gifted filmmaker, took that ready-made image, a $100-million budget from 20th Century Fox, action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, an excellent supporting cast, and the U.S. Marines and gave us "True Lies," a monster hit movie ("The Secret Life of 'True Lies,' " Calendar, July 14). You'd think that, with Cameron's talent and available resources, he'd be able to create a hit that didn't defame and dehumanize an entire culture.

Oh, sure, there are some bad Arabs (both Muslim and Christian) and some bad Muslims (both Arab and non-Arab)--about the same percentage as we have bad Americans. But the vast majority are just like the rest of us: They get up in the morning, work hard, feed the family, pay the taxes, go to bed.

It took decades for black Americans to get partial relief, but Latinos and Asians are still up there on Hollywood's dart board right alongside us Arabs and Muslims. Now the film critics are beginning to take notice.

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Both Kenneth Turan of this paper and Janet Maslin of the New York Times clucked their tongues at the stereotypical Arab in "True Lies." Could some of it have been malicious? When Schwarzenegger's character speaks Arabic, we see English subtitles. But when the Arab characters are speaking Arabic, all we get is an auditory cloud of alien gibberish.

The basic Hollywood story form doesn't change; only the names and the colors of the characters do. If Schwarzenegger's character wore jeans instead of a tux, carried a six-gun instead of a Berreta, rode a Palomino instead of a Harrier jet, and killed redskins wearing feathers instead of brownskins wearing beards, we'd have a classic (and racist) Cowboy and Indian movie.

In World War II movies, Hollywood made the Germans and Japanese at least as nasty as it has made Muslims and Arabs. But we were in big-time wars then with Germany and Japan. No Arab or Muslim country has ever launched a war against America.

Reports of Fox's "bowing to pressure" from Muslim and Arab groups to place a disclaimer on the film are a joke and an insult. Instead of putting it at the beginning of the film where it might have done some good, the studio put it at the very end of a very long list of closing credits--right after the Humane Society. Makes sense. After stereotyping and dehumanizing 1 billion people, where else would you put them except after the animals?

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The other large racial/ethnic groups have already taken their lumps in Hollywood--Native Americans, African Americans, Asians and Asian Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Red, black, yellow and brown. Now Arabs and Muslims are Hollywood's main punching bags. It's an echo of the Nazi propaganda--less lethal, we hope--that dehumanized Jews in the 1930s and made the Holocaust possible.

Hollywood is a potent force. It drove a stake through the heart of anti-Jewish bigotry with "Gentleman's Agreement." It won the case for due process with "The Hanging Tree." "Philadelphia" heightened our sensitivities toward those with AIDS. It gave us more honest perspectives than Washington gave us on the Vietnam War with "Born on the Fourth of July," "Platoon" and "Deer Hunter."

If it wanted to, Hollywood could fix a lot of things. So it's particularly sad when talented, creative people choose to hurt rather than to heal. For now, hasta la vista, Fairness.

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