Hollywood’s Major Muslim Problem

Dean Obeidallah
The Daily Beast
Hollywood’s Major Muslim Problem

After all the negative depictions I’ve seen of Middle Easterners and Muslims in films and TV shows, I didn’t think it was possible to shock me. But this week ABC Family did just that with the announcement of its new TV pilot, “Alice in Arabia.”

BuzzFeed obtained a copy of the pilot script dated July 2013 and reported that it’s, “dotted with cultural inaccuracies and stereotypes.” For example, one of the show’s characters refers to the mixed ethnicity of “Alice” as, “half Jew-loving monkey.”

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Instead of a boring recitation of the show’s storyline, let me pitch you the show idea like you’re an exec at ABC Family:

“OK, it’s a show about a rebellious teenager whose parents die in a car accident. She’s kidnapped by her extended family! Now guess where the kidnappers are from? Saudi Arabia! And these Saudi peeps are part of the royal family and they imprison our star in a royal compound. Think Elizabeth Smart but funny and a nicer house. These Brown people make her wear a veil and do other Arabic stuff. Will our ‘Alice’ outsmart these Arabs and make it home to good ole’ USA?!

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Many of you must be thinking: You’re kidding, right? But nope, that’s truly the show concept: veil, kidnapping of an American teenager, royal compound and all.

An ABC Family spokesperson responded to my inquiry about the leaked pilot script with the statement: “Pre-judging a pilot that is not even in production is irresponsible. As everyone in the industry knows, all pilots go through multiple rewrites, where story lines change and characters develop, and very few get picked up to series.”

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That’s true. I’ve worked on TV pilots and revisions are very common. But will there be any changes to the plot point that a teenage American girl is kidnapped by Arabs? Inevitably, Twitter has already rounded on the show.

Look, Middle Easterners being demonized by Hollywood is nothing new. As Dr. Jack Shaheen noted in his book, “Reel Bad Arabs,” there have been approximately 350 films between 1970 and 2001 that depicted Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, evil sheiks, and other dastardly villains. Although since 9/11 Hollywood has tried to be more responsible by including the one “good” Middle Eastern person to counterbalance the sea of “bad” ones as we’ve seen in “Homeland.” (And usually the “good” Arab is killed by the “bad” ones.)

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But what I find even more disturbing is that, in general, people of Middle Eastern heritage aren’t part of the creative team even though the project focuses on our culture. For example, the creator and writer of “Alice in Arabia” is Brooke Eikmeier, a former US Army linguist in Arabic who trained to support NSA missions in the Middle East. Of course we don’t know who else is involved in the production of “Alice In Arabia,” but if there are many Arabs involved that would be a beyond-rare thing in Hollywood, which tends to the lilywhite, and lily-whiter.

I wrote about this same issue in 2012 when Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy “The Dictator” was released which was about an Arab general yet there were no Arabs involved on the creative team.

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Let’s be honest, if a person pitched a TV show that focused on Latino or Asian culture, I would assume that most TV executives would inquire about the background of those in the creative process to ensure they truly grasp the nuances of that culture. But when it comes to our community, they seem not to care.

Plain and simple, this is: “Brownploitation.” It’s akin to the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s, but worse for one big reason. While the “Blaxploitation” films often depicted African-Americans in a negative light as pimps, drug dealers, prostitutes, at least Blacks starred in films and some were even written and/or directed by African-Americans. Consequently, the success of those films launched careers both behind and in front of the camera enabling some to later be involved in Hollywood projects that depicted the Black community in a positive light.

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In our case, however, not only are we locked out of the creative process, in many instances we don’t even get cast in the Middle Eastern roles.  For example, just this week the play version of the movie “Aladdin” opened on Broadway. Guess how many people of Middle Eastern heritage are in the cast? Zero. I get it’s a fictional story but it clearly co-opts Middle eastern culture. After all, the lead male character’s name is the very Middle Eastern: “Prince Ali.”

Hollywood executives have the right to make any films or TV shows they want, even ones demonizing us. But I have a simple plea for them: Include us in the creative process when a project focuses on our culture.  Why? Authentic voices equal a more nuanced, less clichéd, final product which in turn generally means a better chance for commercial success.  Bottom line: It’s good for your bottom line.

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At this point, we don’t know if “Alice in Arabia” will make it past the pilot stage and become a TV series.  You have to wonder if the execs at ABC Family are rethinking the show or at least the premise given the backlash.

But regardless what happens with “Alice,” in the future if entertainment executives are pitched TV shows or films which focus on Middle Easterners, or any other minority culture, I hope they will ask: Are any people from those communities involved in your creative team? And if the answer to that question is “no,” then I hope they will say “no” to the project.

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