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Last month, as part of its Race in Hollywood series, Turner Classic Movies featured “Arab Images in Film.” Dr. Jack Shaheen accompanied TCM host Robert Osborne in the screening of more than 30 movies. The selections proved entertaining and instructive, though perhaps not in the way Dr. Shaheen intended.
Jack Shaheen is the author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Olive Branch Press, 2001), hailed by some film scholars as a courageous expose of Hollywood’s racist stereotypes aimed at Arabs and Middle East culture. Shaheen, of Lebanese parentage, traces interest in this theme from his early days watching television.
He has since come across more than a thousand movies he views as detrimental to Arabs, such as Team America Secret Police and Blackhawk Down, and a few he sees as beneficial. These include The Chronicles of Riddick, Flightplan, and Kingdom of Heaven, a tale of the Crusades starring Ghassan Massoud as Saladin.
Shaheen has served as a Middle East consultant for CBS News and has consulted on such films as Syriana and Three Kings. In July on TCM he screened such films as The Sheik (1921), Lawrence of Arabia, Tarzan the Fearless, Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Jewel of the Nile, Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy, and others. Shaheen castigates most of the films as deliberate vilification of Arabs.
That is a stretch for such fare as The Road to Morocco, and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This approach reaches its nadir in Harem Scarem, from 1965, starring the late Elvis Presley. To see in the worst of Presley’s 30-odd movies a deliberate attempt to vilify Arabs is more than a stretch. At that point, good judgment, perceptive criticism and common sense, have all left the building, just like Elvis.
One might imagine a screening of Marx Brothers movies such as A Night at the Opera or Horse Feathers as an attempt to vilify Jews and Judaism. The characters appear to have no religion, no jobs, and spend all their time cracking jokes. By Shaheen’s standards Three Stooges and Red Skelton movies are a vilification of all Americans.
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