Will Hollywood Ever Stop White Dudes Gunning Down Random Arab Baddies?
'London Has Fallen' is a very, very bad film. But it's not alone.
With the recent release of London Has Fallen, it seems that Hollywood hasn’t tired of trotting out paint-by-number films on the threat of terrorism, buoyed by the fresh currency of fear fuelled by ISIS. In the film — a sequel to the ‘President is under attack’ opus Olympus Has Fallen — Gerard Butler plays Mike Banning, the US President’s guard, who dispenses with an assembly of exclusively dark-skinned terrorists who have offed major world leaders. They want to kill the President — slowly, with a sword — and televise it live, as revenge for a US strike against weapons dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul) which killed his daughter.
It’s as trite as it sounds. The film is lit up by merciless sequences of violence and damnation against an unknowable enemy — gun-wielding zealots who seem to be somehow both Pakistani and also Arab. We never really find out which, but it doesn’t matter. We’re not meant to care about them, we’re only meant to recognise them as the bearded threat. That, and we want Mike Banning to save the President because he stands for all that is good and blah blah blah — you get the idea.
Hollywood vs The World
The US-under-attack trope is at the heart of most Hollywood blockbusters, whether action, thriller or drama. It’s an effective way of creating stakes and suspense, but it’s also created a stale filmic formula that lends itself well to full-blown racism: we’re good, they’re bad. In fact, they’re so bad, they don’t even get a proper identity. In one of Butler’s finer moments as the president’s top bodyguard, he kills a terrorist after quipping — and I’m paraphrasing here — “go back to Fuckheadistan or wherever the hell you’re from”.
This isn’t new. Hollywood has always defined itself against ‘the Other’ and because of the films’ simplistic plots, Otherness is practically always equated with danger. But what that ‘Other’ is has changed over the years.
From the 1950s onwards, the Cold War spawned decades of films that covered the US’ tense relationship with Russia and generally billed its people as communists, sympathisers or spies with dastardly plans to nuke the world. The good old Motherland has remained an enemy in practically every James Bond film, as well as blockbusters like Air Force One, Salt, Bridge of Spies, The Avengers and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol to name a few. This is no doubt perpetuated by ongoing political tensions with the nation but, at this point, it’s almost a genre to itself. Think of the 1980s cheese parade of American boosterism films — Commando, all the Rambo films bar the first, everything starring Chuck Norris. Even Rocky tipped his hat to this in Rocky IV, facing off against Russian Ivan Drago — a man who was incapable of smiling.
It was around the same time Hollywood turned to people of Columbian, Cuban or Mexican descent. Off the back of America’s War on Drugs and South America’s role in smuggling narcotics in a cocaine boom, these people were consigned to the ‘evil drug lord’ trope — they were given roles of cartel operators, maintaining strongholds through violence and domination. This began in the 1980s (Scarface, Romancing the Stone), but gained real currency in the ‘90s. In Clear and Present Danger, a defiant Harrison Ford faced off against men lurking in the shadows smoking cigars and firing bazookas. In the film poster, he stares back at you, an American flag as his armour.
This lazy stereotyping persists in more recent films. Blow, Traffic, Savages and Sicario are just a few that explore the drug trade with people from South America in a way that tends to glorify the US, even when the ‘good guys’ (like those in Sicario) aren’t really all that good. Of course, there is a story to be told in South America’s fraught relationship with the drug trade; but in Hollywood’s hands, the reality portrayed is a sepia-toned wasteland without hope or light. In these films, the bad guys are given singular focus in grim tales that ignore the world around them. It’s the US’ vision of the story that we’re being sold, not the reality.
So does Hollywood simply respond to this currency of fear, then try to reflect upon it? Or is this just a case of cynical cashing in? Either way, there’s a deliberate logic in writing bad guys as the flavour of the day.
Take, for example, 1969’s The Manchurian Candidate. It deals with the brainwashing of a former prisoner of war into an assassin for a Communist conspiracy. In the 2004 remake, the film moved the source of tension to the Arab world, setting it amid the Gulf War. The same happened with 1984’s Red Dawn. The original portrayed a dystopia in which Cuban communists supported by Russia (the familiar foreign enemy) invaded the Southern states of the US. Fast-forward to the 2012 remake and the bogeyman was North Korea (though reportedly, it was originally meant to be China before Hollywood executives bowed to the threat of Chinese censorship).
So many of these films, particularly those which took off around the 1980s, are ultimately instructive: America was still coming to terms with its crushing loss in Vietnam. Arguably, its dominating presence in cinema was an effort to reclaim its superiority and win — even if it was only on the silver screen.
Consider then the effects of September 11 — an act that no one saw coming, and which propelled a shocked nation into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once again, Hollywood took hold of the popular narrative: that America is great. A slew of films then took (and continues to take) aim at anyone vaguely from the Middle East. In Hollywood, the US never loses.
In Hollywood, Arabs are predominantly terrorists. So are Muslims. Often they are both. As London Has Fallen loves to remind us, there are Pakistani Muslim terrorists as well.
After September 11, a tonne of ‘political thrillers’ were released including Syriana, The Kingdom, and Body of Lies, which relished this particularly Middle Eastern version of the T-word . The latter was particularly memorable thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio’s poor attempts to speak Arabic (a rare show of basic understanding). But even then, the usual US-triumphs-over-evil ingredients are present. CIA agent — check. Terrorist heartland — check (in this case, Jordan). An amorphous swarm of evil Arabs with one redeeming character — check.
While you might argue that this movie is a little more thoughtful than much of the nonsense we see, the essential issue here is how Arabs are portrayed as the Other — frightening, lesser, somehow not as advanced. Not even a sweet love story between Leo and a Muslim chick with a US-hating sister can deter from the eerie, unnerving vibe you get about the Middle East. At one point in the film, Russell Crowe sums up the Hollywood mentality nicely: “Ain’t nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There’s nothing here to like.”
Arab-American professor Jack G Shaheen has spent decades documenting the portrayal of Arabs in American cinema like this. His seminal book, Reel Bad Arabs, documents a history of slander, where Arabs of many nations are belittled to the status of exoticised, strange people without history and without purpose. He traces this back, in fact, to their first depictions on screen.
“[There’s been] a dangerously consistent pattern of hateful Arab stereotypes,” he said in the subsequent documentary on the topic. “These are stereotypes that rob an entire people of their humanity.”
Taking Down The White Hero
Though London Has Fallen sees Butler posture well as the hero with Western lives to protect, he has a tough act to follow. The ‘Saving The World From Evil People’ genre has previously defined the careers Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone and Liam Neeson.
The latter’s turn as former CIA agent Bryan Mills in the Taken series has not only spawned an avalanche of Neeson memes, it’s also traded in some very typical and damaging Hollywood tropes, starting with Eastern European sex traffickers selling off his daughter to the highest Arab bidder. Americans are always the victims and saviours all at once in these films. Only they are capable of being both.
So, how to change that? Diversity is a theme getting more and more attention in the entertainment industry — or, more correctly, the distinct lack of it. This year, Screen Australia announced that it’s investing in a study of diversity in TV drama. Miranda Tapsell used her Logies speech last year to petition networks to “put more beautiful people of colour on TV and connect viewers in ways which transcend race”. In the US, Viola Davis made a similar plea when she won an Emmy and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy has shown film in particular is lagging behind.
Making room for people to tell their own stories is the crucial next step, and nowhere is this more necessary than Hollywood. As long as the primary storytellers and producers are Westerners, the stories we consume will continue to offer Western heroes, who are never, ever people of colour. As comedian Nazeem Hussein brilliantly satirises in his Legally Brown skit ‘The Token White Actor’, they will remain the bad guy, a sidekick, or a blameless, nameless victim caught in between.
While London Has Fallen unfortunately exists, it’s suffering horrific reviews and igniting long-overdue conversations about this kind of xenophobia and racism. Directors and producers who peddle this tired formula are increasingly culpable to the backlash, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent they’re ignoring an entire global audience who are not white or Western.
If we’re to buy into Hollywood’s vision of the world, the West is an enlightened state and the US its pulsing heart; a near-mythical land where social problems are non-existent, a country that has a pure and unblemished history of greatness, which is rendered a victim of others’ backwardness. Its saintliness keeps it perpetually under threat from those who oppose their freedom.
It’s time to move beyond a world where white people are heroes, and villains are tragic paint-by-number figures who are always culpable in their own misery, no matter how they ended up with a gun in their hands.
Amal Awad is a Sydney-based freelancer writer, journalist and author of three books. She sometimes writes at amalawad.com and tweets from @amalmawad.