Islamophobia on the red carpet

February 27, 2013

This year, the Oscar goes to...Islamophobia. Laura Durkay explains why.

THE 85TH annual Academy Awards took place on Sunday night, and by the next morning, much of the commentary had boiled down to a couple of themes. For some, the headline news for the evening was the that, among the many women wearing logistically challenging dresses, Jennifer Lawrence happened to trip on hers while climbing the stairs to accept the award for Best Actress.

Among commentators who looked beyond the stars' wardrobe choices, many focused on the barrage of tasteless, offensive and often sexist jokes from host Seth McFarlane.

There was the joke about Chris Brown abusing Rihanna; the joke about 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis hooking up with George Clooney; the joke about how no one can understand Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, but it doesn't matter because we only need to look at them (a double play of sexism and anti-Latina racism together).

The evening also included an anti-Semitic rant about how Jews control Hollywood--which McFarlane apparently thought would be less offensive if delivered by an animatronic bear--and a punch line about McFarlane coming out as gay in the future. Oh yeah, and an entire song about boobs.

Ben Affleck accepts the Best Picture award for Argo
Ben Affleck accepts the Best Picture award for Argo

The smackdown of McFarlane's awful "jokes" was certainly warranted. But much less attention was paid to the terrible politics of some of the big winners of this year's award season--particularly, two films and a television series that attempt to wrap Islamophobic stereotypes in a slick, sophisticated package for a liberal audience.

THE BIG winner on Oscar night was Argo, the political thriller directed by Ben Affleck that is loosely based on a real covert operation in which a CIA officer posed as the producer of a non-existent movie in order to sneak several U.S. embassy workers out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.

In a bit of shameless public relations shtick, the award was announced via video link by Michelle Obama, with a line of carefully selected male and female military personnel in dress uniforms standing behind her. (Presumably, the White House passed on this image for presenting the Best Documentary category, where nominees included The Invisible War, a damning look at the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military.)

Argo panders to the worst racist stereotypes about the Iranian Revolution--which, in reality, was a mass popular uprising that overthrew a vile U.S.-backed tyrant, the Shah of Iran. The Islamists who ultimately came to dominate Iran were on the right wing of the revolution--but such distinctions are totally beyond Argo, which treats almost every Iranian as a fanatic screaming in un-translated Farsi.

In response to such criticism, some fans of Argo point out that the opening sequence of the film uses storyboard-like animation to explain how a CIA-backed coup overthrew a democratically elected Iranian leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953, setting the stage for the Shah's brutality to come.

It's true that this is more historical context than most American films set in a Muslim-majority country offer. But the value of this sequence is immediately undercut by the first live-action sequence of the film, in which a horde of Iranians storms the U.S. embassy like it's the Iranian zombie apocalypse.

While the Muslim masses outside the embassy are depicted in mostly wide shots as an undifferentiated, unintelligible crowd, the moment we go inside the embassy and meet American characters, we get close-ups, humanity, individualized characters and dialogue we can understand.

Throughout the film, Iran is depicted as a terrifying place where traitors are hung in public and menacing Muslim mobs lurk around every corner, ready to confront the protagonists each time they venture outside.

The film is particularly selective in using subtitles to humanize certain characters and not others. The token "Good Muslim," a young female servant in the home of the Canadian ambassador where the American characters take shelter, is given a name and translated dialogue. When Americans speak Farsi, their words are almost always translated. The political chants and banners that might help us understand the demands of the protesting crowds almost never are.

Whether the filmmakers intended it or not, Argo hit theaters at a time when U.S.-initiated sanctions on Iran are causing a currency crisis and shortages of vital medicines. Aside from the historical sleight-of-hand of extracting a heroic American story from the events of the Iranian Revolution, a film that portrays Iranians as violent, irrational religious fanatics isn't simply a neutral piece of entertainment.

But it's certainly not alone. At the Golden Globes, which gives awards for television as well as feature film productions, the clear winner for TV was Homeland, Showtime's drama about female CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and the former American prisoner of war Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) who she believes may have been sent back to the U.S. as a terrorist sleeper agent.

The series, based on an Israeli television show, is rife with Islamophobic clichés and inaccuracies about Islam and the Arab world, "> leading Laila Al-Arian to call it "TV's most Islamophobic show." Yet it is clearly designed to appeal to liberals.

While the show's premise is essentially identical to Fox's Bush-era 24--international terrorist conspiracy to destroy America--it features a smart, complex female protagonist who mostly uses her brain instead of her fists. (It should be noted, however, that Homeland's CIA interrogators are not above using sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, sensory overload and even acute physical pain when they feel it's needed to get the job done--along with threats, psychological and emotional manipulation.)

The show attempts to give some of the terrorist characters understandable motivations, although it makes sure to keep their actions so diabolical that we can never fully sympathize with them. And anytime you begin to think Homeland might be more nuanced than you first thought, it goes off the deep end--like the way Brody's wife reacts when she finds out he converted to Islam, or the ridiculous episode in which Beirut's posh Hamra Street, home to Starbucks and H&M, is depicted as a nest of sinister Hezbollah operatives (and, unsurprisingly, a random Arab mob).

FAR AND away the worse example of Islamophobia on film last year was Zero Dark Thirty, the kill-bin-Laden thriller from Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, the writer-director team behind The Hurt Locker.

Like Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty features a tough, crusading female CIA officer named Maya, who battles institutional sexism and scary Muslims to track down and kill Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty shares Argo's Muslim hordes (Pakistani protesters outside the U.S. embassy) and Homeland's endless supply of Arab/Muslim terrorists. But this film does stand out for how it rationalizes and props up the crimes of U.S. imperialism.

Zero Dark Thirty aims to assure anyone who has qualms about the use of torture in the "war terror" that it's all worth it. Everyone Maya tortures in the film's brutal first half-hour is, without a doubt, a certified terrorist and not an innocent person caught up in the U.S.'s rendition and detention nightmare.

When Zero Dark Thirty opened in wide release in January, it was hailed by many critics as a sure contender for Best Picture. But the film quickly became mired in a controversy over its depiction of torture, including threats of a congressional hearing.

Strangely, politicians seemed to have far fewer problems with the film's ending, in which U.S. Special Forces move through the house where they believe bin Laden to be hiding, cold-bloodedly murdering every adult in sight.

While Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, it won only once, for Best Sound Editing. Did the torture controversy scare Oscar voters away? Did Hollywood's baseline sexism of not taking female directors or female protagonists as seriously as men come into play when selecting which American-spies-versus-evil-Muslims movie to reward? Or was Argo's tale of Hollywood and the CIA uniting to save Americans just too good to for Oscar voters to ignore?

Who knows? What is clear is that Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland have all been critically praised and embraced by audiences that would have scoffed at Jack Bauer's crude antics in 24. Islamophobic stereotypes certainly existed before 9/11, but during the past 12 years of the "war on terror," they have become so commonplace that film and television viewers now often absorb them without even noticing.

While it may be easy for some viewers to write off a movie or TV show's problematic politics by saying "it's just entertainment," these ideas have an impact in the real world.

One of the less-reported stories of Oscar season was the nomination of the remarkable Palestinian film Five Broken Cameras in the documentary category. Emad Burnat, the film's protagonist and co-director, filmed five years of unarmed protests against land confiscation and the building of the separation wall in his West Bank village of Bil'in.

When Emad, his wife and 8-year-old son Gibreel arrived in Los Angeles to attend the award ceremony, they were detained and questioned at the airport. Despite the fact that Emad had his official Oscar invitation, they were threatened with deportation by immigration officials, who apparently could not believe a Palestinian could be nominated for an Oscar.

Of course, this wasn't a new experience for Emad or his family. "This is a daily occurrence for Palestinians, every single day, throughout the West Bank," Emad said in a statement after the incident. "There are more than 500 Israeli checkpoints, roadblocks and other barriers to movement across our land, and not a single one of us has been spared the experience that my family and I experienced yesterday. Ours was a very minor example of what my people face every day."

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