Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2006)

Posted: July 4, 2009 in Joe Giambrone
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Reel Bad Arabs

Get the DVD: Reel Bad Arabs

Or watch for FREE online

Racism is an ugly subject, and always controversial. This controversy is magnified a thousand fold when talking about the most powerful media corporations on the planet with powers above and beyond citizens or citizens’ groups (and even beyond a number of nation-states). It is important to discuss and to expose racism wherever we find it, as it is the sea in which warmongers swim.

In the current age it is the status quo to demonize Arabs in mass “entertainment.” How did we get here?

Dr. Jack Shaheen has studied Hollywood’s “product,” a century’s worth, and made his observations known.


This groundbreaking documentary dissects a slanderous aspect of cinematic history that has run virtually unchallenged from the earliest days of silent film to today’s biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Featuring acclaimed author Dr. Jack Shaheen, the film explores a long line of degrading images of Arabs–from Bedouin bandits and submissive maidens to sinister sheikhs and gun-wielding “terrorists”–along the way offering devastating insights into the origin of these stereotypic images, their development at key points in US history, and why they matter so much today.

Shaheen shows how the persistence of these images over time has served to naturalize prejudicial attitudes toward Arabs and Arab culture, in the process reinforcing a narrow view of individual Arabs and the effects of specific US domestic and international policies on their lives. By inspiring critical thinking about the social, political, and basic human consequences of leaving these Hollywood caricatures unexamined, the film challenges viewers to recognize the urgent need for counter-narratives that do justice to the diversity and humanity of Arab people and the reality and richness of Arab history and culture.”

The film was produced by the filmmakers behind Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire, another pretty good documentary worthy of its own entry.

Hijacking Catastrophe
DVD: Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire

Reel Bad Arabs takes a strong and unflinching stance against “negative portrayals” and “caricatures.” This is open to some interpretation on the part of the viewer (or producer). The immediate fallback position, when charges of “racism” are lobbed is that there are “bad guys” of all races and types included in Hollywood films, including some of the movies cited. The fact that Arabs are disproportionately included as villains, as opposed to “heroes,” will be obscured by individual cases, minutiae – the trees for the forest defense.

The reality is that Arabs are official US enemies (and Israeli enemies), and so are fair game. They are much easier to invade, occupy, bomb and even torture when they are dehumanized and considered a sub-human species.

Shaheen’s broad point is correct. While specific instances of stereotyping are up for debate, the implications of these trends are not.

Book of the same name, by Dr. Jack Shaheen:

Reel Bad Arabs (Paperback)
Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Paperback)

Internationally acclaimed author and media critic, Dr. Jack G. Shaheen, is a committed internationalist and a devoted humanist. A Pittsburgh native and former CBS news consultant on Middle East Affairs, Shaheen’s lectures and writings illustrate that damaging racial and ethnic stereotypes of Asians, blacks, Native Americans and others injure innocent people. He defines crude caricatures, explains why they persist, and provides workable solutions to help shatter misperceptions.

Professor Shaheen has given over 1,000 lectures in nearly all the 50 states and three continents. Among those universities that have welcomed him are Oxford, Amherst, Brown, Emory, Harvard, the University of Southern California, West Point, as well as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the White House Truman Center. World capitols where he has spoken include London, Berlin, Paris, Prague, New Delhi, Cairo, and Istanbul. He has consulted with the
United Nations, the Los Angeles Commission on Human Relations, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and New York City’s Commission on Civil Rights.
In cooperation with the United States government, he has conducted communication seminars throughout the Middle East.

Dr. Shaheen is the author of four books: Nuclear War Films, Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture, The TV Arab and the award-winning book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. His writings include 300-plus essays in publications such as Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post to chapters on media stereotypes in dozens of college textbooks.

Dr. Shaheen, an Oxford Research Scholar, is the recipient of two Fulbright teaching awards. He holds degrees from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Missouri. He has appeared on national network programs such as CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio, Nightline, Good Morning America, 48 Hours, and The Today Show.

Among Dr. Shaheen’s awards recognizing his “outstanding contribution towards a better understanding of our global community” are: The University of Pennsylvania’s Janet Lee Stevens Award; the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of “his lifelong commitment to bring a better understanding towards peace for all mankind”; and the Pancho Be Award for “the advancement of humanity.” Pancho Be, a Mayan phrase, means “to seek the root of truth.”

Shaheen has served as a consultant with film and TV companies: DreamWorks, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera, and Showtime.


Also by Dr. Shaheen:

Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11


  1. drew3000 says:

    A bit repetitive. I get the point and general agree with the thesis, but after the first 10 minutes he’s repeating himself. This could have been better supported with some more interviews from a wider pool of people. In general, Planet of The Arabs did the job better in less time:

    Thanks for the great blog, though. You should make a category for the films that are available online.

  2. Editor says:

    On the right sidebar are “Free Films” listed. I could probably add a bunch more.


    Propaganda in the Cinema

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