Next Big Thing: Reel Villains When it comes to the portrayal of villains, movie makers sometimes walk the line between broad theatrical strokes and stereotypes. Jack Shaheen, author of "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People," talks about what moviegoers should expect this summer — more Muslim terrorists and Russian spies returning as "bad guys?"
NPR logo

Next Big Thing: Reel Villains

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10802312/10802314" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Next Big Thing: Reel Villains

Next Big Thing: Reel Villains

Next Big Thing: Reel Villains

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10802312/10802314" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

When it comes to the portrayal of villains, movie makers sometimes walk the line between broad theatrical strokes and stereotypes. Jack Shaheen, author of "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People," talks about what moviegoers should expect this summer — more Muslim terrorists and Russian spies returning as "bad guys?"

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now, it's time for the next big thing, where we try to get at what's hot and what's not and whatever else is coming up.

And for a lot of people, there's nothing more exciting than a mad, bad movie villain. But who in this politically correct times can safely represent our worst fears? And how are moviemakers planning to walk the line between broad theatrical strokes and stereotypes?

Just in time for the summer movie season, we want to take a look at the next big thing in movies - especially movie villains. So we're talking with Jack Shaheen. He's the author of "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People." Jack Shaheen, welcome.

Mr. JACK SHAHEEN (Author, "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People"): It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: Now, in the past, you know, the bad guys have been black, I'm thinking about "Birth Of A Nation," Japanese, all the way back to World War II, Russians during the Cold War. Are villains usually political archetypes, and are they usually someone who is seen as the other?

Mr. SHAHEEN: Historically, the villain has always been someone who has been dark, who has presented a threat, a sexual threat, you know, out to seduce the white woman, an economic threat, as with Jews in Nazi Germany and Arabs with their oil money today.

And the religious threat sometimes plays a role, particularly nowadays with Islam, since we know very little. There is the green menace, which has really replaced the red menace. And almost always, it's tied into times of conflict with Arabs and Muslims. We were at war cinematically with Arabs decades before the conflict in Iraq.

MARTIN: Now, tell me about that. You wrote a book called "Reel," and that is spelled R-E-E-L, as in, you know, movie reel…

Mr. SHAHEEN: Right.

MARTIN: …"Reel Bad Arabs," a book which explores the stereotypes of bad guy Arabs in film. And so when did Arabs become the bad guys?

Mr. SHAHEEN: Well, from the very beginning, you know, back when Asians were the bad guys and blacks were perceived - the big black bucks out to do all sorts of damage to innocent white virgins. I mean, back in the early days, they were all sort of lumped together - Hispanics, blacks, Asians, Arabs - because they were dark and they were from over there.

MARTIN: You mean, and when you say from the early days, you mean from the, literally, from the early days of film?

Mr. SHAHEEN: Right. From, you know, the 1890s, when I think it was Edison's "Fatima's Dance," the old - you know, just a couple of frames, you know, with a rotund belly dancer doing her thing. But fortunately, as you pointed out early on, we've unlearned many of our stereotypes of most groups.

And you - we have to credit the industry and, of course, the civil rights movement and the heightened awareness among most Americans realizing that we are, in fact, a rainbow of many colors, that these stereotypes that injured so many people in the past - you know, the images of blacks, which really helped make lynchings that much easier that dehumanization process, the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and the motion picture industry never really portraying Japanese-Americans as Americans but as Japs and Nips, which helped make the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans in 1942 possible.

You know, but it seems that the one stereotype that's sticking to us like glue is the image of the Arab, Arab equal Muslim equal terrorist. And so this image remains with us still.

And what it does is it has a political impact. It influences public opinion so that many Americans nearly 50 percent think that it's okay to deny the civil liberties of American Muslims because, unfortunately, America's Muslims and American Arabs are being lumped together with clones of al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.

MARTIN: What if you want to make films that are reflective, in fact, of current issues? Like there is a film coming out - this will make 85 films coming out this summer. And one of them tracks real-life events. "A Mighty Heart," which speaks to the murder of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter.

Mr. SHAHEEN: Yes. I think that's excellent, and we have to make films like that. I mean, that's something that happened. You know, he was subjected to terrorists over in Pakistan, and it was a brutal killing. He was a fine journalist, and I think those kinds of films are imperative, and they should be a part of our folklore. It's balanced, I think. We're talking about…

MARTIN: What kind of balance? Do you say if you - if an Arab is going to be the villain, then you would like to see an Arab or Muslim character be a hero as well?

Mr. SHAHEEN: Well, I don't want to see an Arab actual villain. I want to see the Arab humanity in films that really reflect, that show Arabs pretty much like ordinary people like, Americans of - you know, who happen to be black or who happen to be Asian, who happen to be Latino.

It's films like something new, where the protagonist conceivably could be an Arab or a Muslim-American. I think that's the problem. The problem with stereotypes - any stereotype of any people - is that we take a few select images of those people and show only those images. It's what we don't see in terms of Arabs and Muslims that's as dangerous if not more dangerous from what we do see.

MARTIN: Your last work was done, what three years ago, and I think you got another book coming out about post 9/11 images…

Mr. SHAHEEN: Post 9/11, yeah.

MARTIN: Are there any movies coming out this summer that you are particularly concerned about?

Mr. SHAHEEN: Well, there are two films that I'm concerned about. One is a film called "The Kingdom," which is set in Saudi Arabia, based on a true incident of a terrorist attack within Saudi Arabia whereby Americans were killed. Now, the Saudis have, you know, you mention Saudi Arabia to most Americans, and they automatically think rich, fat Arabs with too many women who are dressed in black.

There is no, you know, I mean, that's one country and, you know, despite whatever public relations efforts they've tried to accomplish, that strikes a very negative responsive chord. And that particular film with Jamie Foxx is coming out in September.

MARTIN: If people want to make films in which particular groups are the villains, does it balance with out for you if there's a hero who is of the same background?

Mr. SHAHEEN: I think, you take a movie like "Syriana," and the answer to that is yes. In "Syriana," there are some Arabs on that film that you certainly wouldn't want to go out and have dinner with, as well as people with multinational corporations and government officials. But on the other hand, the two main protagonists who get killed in the end, actually, one is an Arab prince and the other is the American and CIA agent George Clooney, who…

MARTIN: Ooh, I never saw it. You ruined it for me. Oh, never mind.

Mr. SHAHEEN: Why? I'm - oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. But no, that, I think, stands as an excellent example.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask if there are any films coming out this summer that you're particularly looking forward to?

Mr. SHAHEEN: No, not really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAHEEN: I, you know, I'm tired of the hype. There aren't too many that I see - you know, probably the "Harry Potter."

MARTIN: I was going to say, not even "Harry Potter?"

Mr. SHAHEEN: Yeah, I said probably the "Harry Potter" film, because I thoroughly enjoy - I've enjoyed it so very much that particular series.

MARTIN: Jack Shaheen, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. SHAHEEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Jack Shaheen is the author of "Reel Bad Arabs." He joined us on the phone from Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.