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'Kazaam' Is Latest in Parade of Offensive Films From Disney

August 12, 1996|JACK G. SHAHEEN | Professor Jack G. Shaheen is the author of "The TV Arab" and a CBS news consultant on Middle East affairs

Disney is advancing prejudice in a children's flick.

Hoping that a fresh, popular genie popping out of a boombox will lure youngsters to movie theaters, Touchstone Pictures, a Disney subsidiary, presents "Kazaam," starring Shaquille O'Neal.

O'Neal appears not as Aladdin's blue, animated jinn, but as an African American genie, resembling Schwarzenegger. The "bad guys" assailing Kazaam and Max, a 12-year-old boy, are gluttonous, greedy gangsters: Americans of Mideast heritage!

The caricatures are appalling, really. Disney's wholesome public relations campaign advocates Entertainment-for-Everyone, except Americans with Mideast roots. Although the company has an enormous capacity to advance accurate images of peoples, when presenting Arab Americans and Arabs, the studio abuses its power, initiating and perpetuating racism.

Here's how Kazaam's villains look:

* Thirty minutes into the film, a swarthy black marketeer named Mustached Malik surfaces. Malik, meaning "owner" in Arabic, bootlegs audiotapes and CDs. Disney makes sure viewers will know Malik carries Mideast genes. Fingering his mishbaha (worry beads), he speaks with a thick accent. And at Malik's nightclub, the camera displays a neon sign, in Arabic.

* Hassem and El-Baz, Malik's dark-looking henchmen in need of shaves, grunt and mumble (in Farsi, no less) when punching the good-guy Americans. Throughout, ominous Arabic music is introduced when Mideast Americans threaten and hurt innocents.

* Seated in his limo, sloppy Malik gobbles "goat's eyes," like a pig swallowing corn. Next, the lens shows dining plates saturated with Arab cuisine on a large table; Malik shovels the food.

* Coveting "all the money in the world," Malik steals Kazaam's boombox. Unless he obtains all that "gold," he threatens to murder Max's father. Max balks; Malik shoves him down a shaft.

* Believing the boy is dead, Kazaam flattens Hassem and El-Baz and transforms Malik into a bouncing ball, tossing him as one throws garbage, into a trash bin.

"Kazaam" clarifies one issue: Disney executives can no longer excuse damaging stereotypes by feigning ignorance. Although bigotry is a serious charge, given the evidence in "Kazaam" and other Disney features, what other explanation makes sense?

Nearly one year after Disney bashed Arabs in "Aladdin" (1992), at a meeting I attended in Burbank, studio executives promised they would in the future consult with Arab Americans so as not to repeat the mistakes. Soon after, in "The Return of Jafar" (1994), they displayed gobs of hook-nosed Arabs referred to in the film as "desert skunks." That same year, Disney continued trouncing Arabs. "In the Army Now" shows reservists deriding Arab cuisine such as babaganoush. Also, the GIs clobber desert Arabs, encouraging the U.S. Air Force to "blow the hell out of them."

In Disney's 1995 Christmas feel-good family film "Father of the Bride, Part II," writers inject a foul, rich, Arab American couple, the Habibs. Unneighborly Mr. Habib appears as a shyster with a thick accent who extorts $100,000 from the protagonist.

Collectively, Disney's relentlessly ruthless images advance suspicion and hatred. Although other studios perpetuate injurious cliches, e.g. Fox's "True Lies" and Warners' "Executive Decision," only Disney violates Americans of Mideast heritage.

Grotesque stereotypes do not exist in a vacuum. Continuously repeated, they engender harm. History teaches us that films of the Third Reich, in part, facilitated the Holocaust. At the same time, Hollywood's pre-World War II "dirty Jap" films advanced the internment of 100,000-plus Japanese Americans.

*

In April 1995, when the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed, journalists incorrectly reported that the suspected bombers looked "Middle Eastern." As a result, according to a report published by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, more than 300 hate crimes, ranging from eight vandalized and burnt-to-the ground mosques to a pregnant Arab American woman losing her child, were committed against America's Arabs, Iranians and Muslims.

Concerned about the injuries, beginning last December, numerous groups and individuals, including this writer, began requesting a dialogue with Disney executives Michael Eisner, Michael Ovitz and Joe Roth. The result? Silence. To date, Disney execs have not answered one letter nor have they returned one phone call.

Disney's New York image-makers emulate the behavior of their Hollywood counterparts. The editors of Disney Adventures, a monthly "Fun for Kids" magazine, will not print an apology for its July issue blemish. Goes the yarn, "Wanna greet somebody Arab-style? Grab a friend and blow into his face at the same time he blows into yours! Just don't turn your head to avoid your buddy's breath. Arabs consider that a major insult."

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