From “Reel Bad Arabs” to “Valentino’s Ghost”

We’re all familiar with the stereotyping of African Americans, Native Americans and Jews in Hollywood films, but the group that has been consistently maligned since the days of silent star Rudolph Valentino’s portrayal of The Sheik in 1921, are the Arabs. Rarely treated fairly in cinema or afforded roles with human dimension, they have now become the caricature of the “terrorist.”

One of the most determined chroniclers of Arab abuse in cinema is Dr. Jack Shaheen, who claims to have watched over 1000 films with Arab subjects. He wrote a book and made a film entitled Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People. This 52-minute 2006 documentary shows one horrid clip after another of Arab and Muslim stereotypes, with a calm and sensitive narrative by Shaheen exposing the unjust and inhuman portrayals in American cinema.

Now there is a new film on the same subject, Valentino’s Ghost by Michael Singh, which takes the research and filmmaking to a new level, examining the ways in which America’s foreign policy agenda in the Middle East drives the mainstream media’s portrayals of Arabs and Muslims. Utilizing some of the same clips as Dr. Shaheeb’s film, this thoroughly engrossing documentary is infused with some of the best ‘talking heads’ in recent memory.

Famed experts on the Middle East share fascinating knowledge rarely expressed in cinema. Authors and PhD’s, Robert Fisk, Melani McAlister and Niall Ferguson have all written best-selling books on the Middle East. John Mearsheimer, co-author of the controversial The Israel Lobby, reveals the intense Israeli lobby against his book; famed writer Gore Vidal, Hollywood director Alan Sharp, and Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss
 are just a few of the colorful characters who bring richness to this penetrating study of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bigotry. Even Dr. Shaheen, who apparently started work on this film before he made his own, graces the film with his presence.

The film starts off and is held together by occasional clips of Arab comedians offering comic relief about a subject that rarely gets treated fairly in film. It makes a point that rarely were Arabs played by Arabs. Valentino was Italian! However, one Arab comedian talks about how he was persuaded to play an Arab terrorist in a major Hollywood blockbuster, because the salary was just too much to turn down.

The documentary makes a strong argument that America’s foreign policy drives mainstream media’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims. How did these stereotypes develop and get out of hand? Certain turning points are addressed — the Munich Olympic killings, the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and of course 9/11 — that changed the course of history. These events sealed the image of Arabs or Muslims as evil, violent and despicable.

Most Americans don’t know why Iranians reacted so strongly and took Americans hostages in 1979. Most Americans don’t recall the U.S. role in maintaining the Shah in power and then refusing to return the deposed leader to Iran for trial, a major factor in the masses revolt. Most Americans are unaware that 567,000 Iraqi children died in the first Iraq war. Was this revenge or sadism? Is this possibly another reason why we have to see Arabs and Muslims as “terrorists’?

But the reasons for these events are rarely examined or even reported in the mainstream media. Could it be that the U.S. defense of Israel and its policy of occupation caused terrorism, not the other way around? With little or no criticism of Israel in U.S. mainstream media, with hardly any Arab films shown on American TV, is it any wonder why Americans succumb to such awful and inaccurate portrayals of Muslims and Arabs?

The film contains rare footage of George Habash, a Palestinian Christian and founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. There are also positive references to several films that present a fairer view, Three Kings, Syriana, Avatar, Miral, to name a few. And then there’s world media broadcast in America presenting alternative views, like Al Jazeera, RT, Press TV, and the U.S.’s Link TV and Free Speech TV. Director Michael Singh noted the film received a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival and is getting far better reception in the rest of the world than here in the U.S. Could it be the effect of American foreign policy?

Cultural activists who make films like Valentino’s Ghost are a tremendous asset. Highly informative, creative and entertaining, you might be able to catch a shortened version of this absorbing film on PBS, but the full version is much more rewarding. Check out the website for ways to see this important film.

Photo: Valentino’s Ghost Facebook page.



Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.