The Saudi-US Relations Information Service (SUSRIS) has an interesting interview with Dr Larry Michalak looking at the changing image of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood films. Perhaps surprisingly, the image is getting better. Since a film in 1999—the Michael Crichton story ‘The Thirteenth Warrior’—claims Michalak, Arabs and Muslims are being shown as heroes, as sympathetic characters, as complex characters. This is a far cry from the cartoonish characterizations of earlier films. Even after 9/11, Muslims were not utterly demonized in American films; Michalak notes only two such films. Instead, we find films like ‘The Kingdom’, in which even Saudis get to be heroic in American film.
The text below is from the SUSRIS write-up of the interview. You can hear the entire, 15-minute interview at this link, though be warned that the audio is not top quality.
Images of Arabs and Muslims in American Cinema
Elizabeth R. Pfiester | SUSRIS
Dr. Larry Michalak, PhD, a cultural anthropologist and Middle East specialist from the University of California, Berkeley, recently talked with SUSRIS about the “Improvement in Images of Arabs and Muslims in Recent American Cinema.” Dr. Michalak’s research about the film portrayals was the subject of a paper he presented last month at the Middle East Studies Association annual conference in San Diego. [Interview on SUSRIStube.com]
In his study, Michalak examined 23 major films about Arabs and Muslims between the years 1999 and 2010 — categorizing them as positive, negative, and neutral films — to understand how the image of Arabs and Muslims in American cinema evolved in the recent past. Despite challenges in properly fitting each of these films into precise categories, Michalak rated 11 of them positive, six neutral, and four negative. He created an alternative category for two films, which were about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which needed separate discussion and classification.
“There has never been a positive [main stream] movie with a main character who was an Arab or a Muslim before 1999,” Michalak explained to SUSRIS. Two 1999 releases –The Thirteenth Warrior and Three Kings – portrayed Arabs in a realistic, non-negative light. This seemed to be the start of a new era of more conscientious and well-informed filmmaking, but when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred in 2001, Michalak feared the prevalence of negative portrayals would return. However, he found this not to be the case. In the following years other movies with Arab or Muslim characters appeared on the scene, including Kingdom of Heaven in 2005. This film portrayed Muslims as the “good guys” and the crusaders as the “bad guys”. In his conversation with SUSRIS, Michalak cited several other films since 9/11, including Syriana and The Kite Runner, which portrayed diverse Middle Eastern characters. In the case of the movie The Kite Runner, Afghans and Muslims are represented based on characters in the book, which was written by an Afghani. Michalak’s assessment noted the positive depiction of Islam.