Hollywood has been guilty of casting non-Arabs in Arab roles for decades, over-representing the ‘Muslim terrorist’ and doing it badly.
Ambiguously brown actors standing against dusty backdrops, barking out threats in fragmented Arabic, are painfully familiar to any Arab audience member.
Then there are the authentically Arab actors, who, in their quest for a livelihood, must allow themselves to be typecast as the villains, anyway. For people who look a certain way, ‘Terrorist #3’ is not an uncommon stepping-stone into Hollywood.
Sometimes it is the only step they’re able to make.
Now, a new development: producers are trying to add ‘dimension’ to these old stereotypes.
The latest reboot of political thriller Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on August 31, starring John Krasinski in the titular role.
A CIA agent in the making, he dives in and out of danger against geopolitical landscapes.
His missions, once pulled straight out of the pages of Clancy’s novels, will instead follow current affairs.
Palestinian actor Ali Sulaiman (The Kingdom) steps into the shoes of a terrorist, who, according to showrunners, will not be a cardboard villain.
(Sulaiman has also played, quite exceptionally, antogonising roles in the UAE-directed Arabic films Zinzana, a psychological thriller, and The Worthy, a post-apocalyptic survival flick.)
“A lot of terrorist stories are really one-dimensional... We wanted to make sure our story was about a bad guy, not a bad culture,” showrunner Carlton Cuse told Entertainment Weekly.
“This is something I haven’t seen in any other projects when Middle Eastern characters are involved... You see the many sides [of this character],” added Sulaiman.
Producers had reached out to Omar M Mozaffar, a Muslim chaplain and Islamic studies professor, to consult on the script. They wanted to avoid common problems with the representation of Muslim terrorists, Mozaffar penned in a Roger Ebert op-ed.
“The hardest part of the process for me was the ethical dilemma of working on the project. Regardless of how much impact I would have, the show is still about Muslim terrorists.
"And regardless of how many people of colour — Muslim or non-Muslim — would have strong characterisations, Ryan would still be the proverbial upper class White saviour,” he wrote.
Mozaffar signed onto the project nonetheless. He commended showrunners for taking his feedback seriously and amending the script.
Still, he was conflicted.
“My hope was for a depiction of terrorists with a history and vision that has historical legitimacy and makes sense. Terrorists engage in savagery for multiple reasons, including the desire to respond to savagery,” wrote Mozaffar. Ending his piece, he lamented, “I still wish, however, that the Muslim characters did not need guns.”
It was 12 years ago that Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, a documentary based on Jack Shaheen’s book about the perennially negative portrayals of Arabs in Western cinema, came out.
More than a decade on, most Arab actors (with the exception of, say, Rami Malek and Alia Shawkat) are grappling with the same issues — under-representation and pigeonholing in an industry that refuses to humanise them.
Television programmes such as the ongoing Homeland, or movies such as American Assassin (2017), have renewed this very same commitment to portraying Arabs and Muslims through a singularly focused lens.
Audiences are fatigued. When the trailer dropped for Jon Hamm’s war film Beirut earlier this year, backlash was instant and widespread.
The film, which came under fire for displaying Lebanon as barbaric in its trailer, only grossed $7.2 million (Dh26.4 million) worldwide. By comparison, A Quiet Place, directed by and starring Krasinski, which released the previous month, went on to make more than $332 million globally.
For years, there have been American films and television shows about camaraderie, friendship, family, love and other things that do not pertain to war, desolation or issues of national security. And for years, viewers would have been hard pressed to find a single Arab character who’s just the girl or guy next door.
Jack Ryan is a cinematic mainstay, portrayed by Hollywood heavyweights such as Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October, 1990), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games, 1992), Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears, 2002) and Chris Pine (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, 2014) in the past. It has yet to be seen how this latest incarnation will tackle tumultuous current affairs in 2018, but Saudi actress Dina Shihabi, who plays Sulaiman’s wife Hanin, is optimistic.
“We’re not going to be able to empathise with different cultures and actually affect change until we see each other as humans. The way they’ve done that in the show is so beautiful,” she told Entertainment Weekly.
Pockets of Hollywood may be slowly working to shift the narrative around the Muslim terrorist trope. But as Mozaffar suggested, it leaves something to be desired.
In Netflix’s The OA, acclaimed Palestinian actress Hiam Abbas played the mystical character of Khatun. Not a villain.
In Altered Carbon, Palestinian-American actor Waleed Zuaiter played the empathetic agent Samir Abboud. Not a villain.
Even Community, which tragically cast an Indian-American to play a Palestinian-American, managed to make strides towards some Arab inclusion. Not a villain.
Back in the film world, Guy Ritchie signalled a new era in Hollywood when, for his upcoming live-action remake of Aladdin, he cast Egyptian-Canadian newcomer Mena Massoud in the lead, rather than a non-Arab.
Audiences can only hope that, in addition to directors adding nuance or dimension to the stale stories Hollywood has always fed them about bad Arabs, they can give them brand new stories, too.
Unprecedented ones. The kind where Arab actors play run-of-the-mill, everyday people, who are visible across all genres — even the non-political and optimistic ones. After all, the era of the reel good Arab is long overdue.
Jack Ryan streams on Amazon Prime Video from August 31.