So, I read this really fascinating article at GQ about Arab American actors being typecast as terrorists. At first, this seems like an obvious story, nothing that would surprise you, “Of course they mostly cast them as terrorists, so what?” but the story pointed out some aspects even I wasn’t aware of.
Whenever I talk about stereotypes in movies, the depiction of black people or Native Americans or Arabs, I mostly care about the image that is presented to the audience. If movies show all these “minorities” in only one kind of role, people will expect them to be this way in real life. That is a problem. But what about the actors having to play those stereotypes?
Maz understood, as he lay dead in that refinery, that Hollywood didn't want him to be an actor. Hollywood wanted him to be a caricature. "I started acting in junior high," he says. "I was in Guys and Dolls. I was Stanley Kowalski. In my head, before coming to Hollywood, I thought, ‘I can play anything.'" But instead he'd become the latest iteration in Hollywood's long history of racist casting, reducing his religion and culture to a bunch of villainous, cartoonish psychopaths.
Arab American actors, no matter if they are Muslims or not, have to face consequences for playing these kinds of stereotypes. Imagine you have to tell your kid that your job is playing terrorists who kill people for the faith you teach her to believe in. Or, as it happens to some of the actors in the article, that family members don’t speak to you anymore because you actually help Hollywood in making you and your people look worse. If someone tells you that he thinks all Arabs are terrorists, what can you say if you are partly responsible for it?
There’s more, as the article explains. Not only are they mostly asked to play terrorists, they inevitably also die most of the time. How would you feel being asked to be gunned down by a white hero in most of the roles you play? They hardly play real characters. They rarely have non-Arabic character names. It doesn’t matter which country they come from, they play any countryman that seems Arabic. They sometimes play people with other “bad” professions, thugs, thieves, psychopaths, rapists.
I decided to take a look at some other actors, not mentioned in this article, to see if it was just them or a general trend. I started with Executive Decision, the 1996 action movie with Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal (directed by Stuart Baird, at a time when editors got a shot at directing) about terrorists capturing a plane. Several people play roles simply named as “terrorist.” Randomly I pick Majed Ibrahim who plays a, guess what, terrorist in the movie. Here’s his IMDb filmography:
He only had six credited roles (actually only five) in which he played two terrorists, two henchmen, a bodyguard and someone not even mentioned in the credits. And that’s in 14 years of working as an actor! Let’s jump from here to Bad Company, the truly awful Anthony Hopkins/Chris Rock/Joel Schumacher movie from 2002 and look at the other Dragan Henchman, played by Adoni Maropis. Maropis is born in the U.S. and has Greek heritage. Greek, not Arab. Look at the pictures and “Known for” movies we get on his IMDb page:
That looks worrying already. He has 43 credits including names sounding Italian (Paolo, Salvatore), Chinese (Quan Chi), Arabic (Hassan, Abdul, Amir, Abu [a terrorist], Hasad) or Spanish (Javier), but also nameless roles like Revolutionary, Rebel Leader, Bald Watcher, Doubting General, Pimp, Soldier or Agamemnon’s Officer. One time in JAG (of all things) he plays Cmdr. Vlahakis, which actually sounds Greek.
Let’s go from here to one of the episodes of 24 he appeared in and look at Said Faraj, who is originally from Lebanon. Since he moved to the U.S. he played terrorists (twice), parking attendants (twice), prisoners, Arabic singers, thugs, suicide bombers, generals and surprisingly a senator. 2016 he will appear in the new Todd Phillips movie as Supplier #1.
And just to be sure we know what we’re talking about, here are some examples of what these actors actually have to do and have a hard time escaping:
I am aware that Arabs are not the only stigmatized group. I could write a similar article about people from Africa or Asia or Russia or Italy or any other continent, country or ethnicity (and maybe I will). But we should be super-aware of the broadness the villains and thugs are often shown in movies. We are so used to some general group of people being mowed down without any explanation besides “They’re the bad guys” that we don’t even think of the people behind those roles. If I were an actor in the U.S. I wouldn’t want to only play Nazis. What do you think?