Turban Decay deals with images of Arabs in the cinema, as observed by Front Row Central staff writer and actual Arab Jordan Saïd. The column deals with stereotypes and changing perceptions both before and after 9/11.
Until last week, True Lies remained an overlooked item on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and James Cameron’s long résumés. Hollywood poured $120 million (an astronomical sum at the time) into this overbearing, overlong action-comedy. It saw astronomical success at the time, but now, absent from streaming services, it remains the stuff of mothballed DVD boxes in attics everywhere. Schwarzenegger played Harry Tasker, a federal agent and one of the deadliest spies in the world… without telling his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) or his daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku). Harry’s family learns about his double-life when a Palestinian terrorist organization threatens him.
True Lies reentered the public consciousness a few days ago, when Dushku came forward with her harrowing story of sexual assault at the hands of stunt coordinator Joel Kramer. Two other women have since made similar allegations. I believe all three accusers. I also find it bitterly appropriate that the most high-profile allegation concerns this film, which displays with a straight face all the things wrong with toxic masculinity and jingoism. If this film could walk and talk, it would hate women and minorities.
Loads of Arabs and Muslims hated True Lies before I walked in here. Ibrahim Hooper led CAIR in a protest against the film. In Reel Bad Arabs, Jack Shaheen vilifies this film for “perpetuating sick images of Palestinians as dirty, demonic, and despicable peoples,” going so far as to rank it among the worst depictions in film history. Muslim leaders in Indonesia attempted to have the film banned there. Casey Kasem decried the film’s racism in a letter sent to some major Hollywood players, and he complained to SAG, but those complaints had no apparent impact.
Our protests stem not from shock but from enervation. We’ve seen this so many times before: Arabs always depicted as “billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers.” They hate all things American, and they communicate this by blowing shit up and firing guns into the air. The selectively-intelligent terrorists ululate and wave guns like cavemen brandish clubs, yet they operate sophisticated global networks to procure nukes. But, by showing Arabs detonating a nuke on American soil, this film takes cultural xenophobia to a new level.
The film begins at a black-tie party in the Swiss castle of Arab oil billionaire Jamal Khaled (Marshall Manesh—an Iranian playing an Arab). Cameron stocks the castle with goose-stepping Germans on the outside and sneaky Arab henchmen on the inside. Right from the start, the juxtaposition of Nazi-esque Germans marching along the exterior with prying Arabs prowling the halls codes Arab characters as evil and anti-American. In what I’d hesitate to call a coincidence, Schwarzenegger never speaks his native German in the film, adding to the otherization of this German/Arab cloud of evil. (American audiences had long since adopted Schwarzenegger as an honorary American, and Cameron banks off of that to sell Harry Tasker as an American spy.) Juno Skinner (Tia Carrere), the obligatory femme fatale, acts as the sole American in the villainous retinue. She also has the most screen-time of any actor of color, because Hollywood has to make actors of color villains.
In addition to the main villains, Arab characters serve as evil set dressing. As expected, they function as alternately murderous and inept cannon fodder. They bark guttural imprecations and charge at Harry Tasker in barbigerous, screaming waves only for Harry to gun them down and snap their necks and immolate them. In the third act, a group of Arabs sitting in a truck decide to fire an FIM-92 Stinger at a helicopter. The backblast knocks a hapless henchman through a windshield in an apparent attempt at comedy, and the missile ends up missing anyway.
Despite that they appear to live in America, we seldom see Arabs speak English. While Harry and Juno speak a few lines of obviously-rote-memorized Arabic, the context increases that otherization. Of course, spy stories have used this mechanism of henchmen looking the same and speaking the same non-western language since James Bond wore diapers, but True Lies makes them seem even more like simplistically-programmed video game sprites than usual. Cameron adds insult by adding heroic-sounding music to Harry’s use of an improvised flamethrower. Nothing communicates to the audience not to see a people as human beings like hearing Brad Fiedel’s soaring score while a G-man wearing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face commits a war crime.
In a scene that Mythbusters would debunk, Helen drops a loaded MAC-10, and the stray weapon proves the deadliest in the film, mowing down half a dozen Arabs who literally walk into the uncontrollable gun’s path. By this point, I just felt the film insulting my intelligence as a viewer and an Arab. Hell, Cameron, at least have the decency to have your nameless Arabs die by something better than a gun-toting staircase.
Salim Abu Aziz (played by Persian-British actor Art Malik—so close to ethnic accuracy, and yet so far) emerges as the film’s most prominent villain. He reveals himself as Juno’s boss and physically strikes her twice. He later attempts to thwart Harry’s pursuit by holding a black female bystander hostage. (Women of color get treated the worst in this film, because intersectionality.) This works off of and adds to the longstanding stereotype of Arab men as more animalistic, violent, and controlling than white men. Sadly, domestic violence remains a problem in the Arab world, but that doesn’t absolve Cameron of having his most prominent Arab character commit violence against a woman as a cheap tactic to generate heat.
In an interview, Cameron shrugged off these problematic aspects by saying, “I just needed some convenient villains” (which makes its own point as to Hollywood’s creative indolence). In the film, he appears to make perfunctory, insincere attempts to mollify Arab viewers. Harry and Gibson work with a recently-assigned sidekick by the name of Faisil (Grant Heslov, an ethnically Jewish actor). While Faisil looks Arab, and we hear him speak a few words of Arabic in the beginning of the film, Cameron never commits to explicitly making Faisil Arab. Faisil ends up the most ineffectual of Harry’s group of protagonists. The film contains a disclaimer buried in the credits: “This film is a work of fiction and does not represent the actions of beliefs of a particular culture or religion.” Of course, True Lies came out long before every movie with two coins to rub together added a post-credits stinger, so this disclaimer amounted to a breath against an avalanche.
Cameron’s other attempt comes when Aziz records a video explaining his motivations. He explains that he resents American soldiers for killing women and children in the Middle East. Aziz says, “You have killed our women and children, burned our cities from afar like cowards.” This has grown astronomically worse, but our culture and government largely cloister everyday Americans from the reality of it. When worse evidence comes out, our political sphere blames the messenger. This motivation should sound like a legitimate reason for anger. By 2007, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had killed 971 children, the overwhelming majority of them Palestinian. But Cameron undercuts this by making a gag of the camcorder’s battery dying. In a better film, if you saw a man relate the sight of civilians gunned down by foreign soldiers only to get interrupted by a slapstick gag, how would you react?
These attempts do nothing to absolve Cameron or his crew of the result. This film contains the first instance in American film history of Muslims detonating a nuclear warhead on American soil. From start to finish, newscasts in the background warn against the dangers of Arab terrorists. Cameron dubs the Palestinian terrorist group Crimson Jihad. The word “crimson” indeed comes from Arabic, where it refers to red dye. But Cameron misuses jihad (جهاد), which in Arabic has no intrinsic connotations of violence.
This ends in a final middle-finger to Middle Easterners in the finale. Harry and Helen, both now secret agents, dance together in a black tie party that parallels Khaled’s at the start. This party looks about the same… but with no Middle Easterners this time. Vicki Roland wrote, “the elite in attendance are Americans, Asians, Africans, French-speaking people, and no Arabs; no dark, unshaven men wearing kuffiyehs. The film’s message is clear: When the world is rid of Arabs, we will at last be safe.”
True Lies depicts every instance of unauthorized surveillance as a positive. Our first exposure to the banter between Harry and Helen has Harry bragging about how his cover job’s sales team has a new product that can look up a customer’s entire purchase history. Gibson shows off a CCTV camera hidden in a pack of cigarettes, without which we’d never learn about Dana’s stealing habit. Minutes later, Faisil drops the main plot exposition, starting by saying, “Jamal Khaled. We think he’s dirty, so we raid his private financial files.” Tasker even uses a wiretap for personal use: he has Helen’s phone tapped when he suspects her of having an affair. Without illegal spying, Tasker would never have discovered the other man and thus, surveillance becomes key to saving their marriage. I get that a spy film needs spying. But the film never questions our characters’ measures, instead hewing to the mantra of “he gets results.” In the arch-conservative world of 90s spy films, the end always justifies the means.
It seems appropriate that Dushku’s harrowing account took place in the production of a film so redolent of toxic masculinity. Cameron tries to have it both ways, playing Schwarzenegger’s gun-toting musclehead image for laughs and playing it straight when the second act turns into Commando with Arabs. The conflicts with both Aziz and Simon boil down to symbolic dick-measuring. The film almost descends into an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon as the characters use bigger and bigger phallic symbols to cause millions in property damage. Incidentally, how the hell does a secret federal organization cause this much damage to civilian property with nobody batting an eye?
All the while, the men use women as poker chips. Typical of lazy action movies, women serve as living MacGuffins with no effect on the plot. Even Helen’s and Juno’s obligatory fistfight has little effect on the outcome of the scene. Helen and Dana exist to get kidnapped and held over Harry’s head. Gibson and Faisil persist in talking about women like touchdowns, and Faisil makes a joke of sexual assault. Bragging about sexual conquests becomes a sport in this film. Nobody seems to question the ethics of Harry using government resources to stalk his wife or have her kidnapped, interrogated, and sent on a fake mission. By the film’s logic, she deserves it for feeling an attraction outside her marriage. You know, even though Harry spends the first act carrying on an unnecessary flirtation with Juno. At any rate, Cameron seems to want to use the film’s back half to make Harry and Helen into dual badasses a la the Thin Man series, but the production team has too much apparent contempt for women for it to work.
True Lies remains absent from streaming services to this day, an odd turn of events for the most expensive movie made up to that point. It feels every bit like a 90s movie: Lightstorm Entertainment invested Herculean sums into spectacle without having anything special or interesting to say. Typical for the time, Cameron attempts to have it both ways, playing tropes for laughs and playing them straight at the same time (watch a few episodes of Duckman or Action or early South Park to see what I mean). But characterizing Arabs as self-defeating nuclear-armed Hamburglar clones doesn’t make me laugh. Nor does portraying women as glorified currency.
I admire newer action movies for at least trying to mix spectacle with a human factor. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for all its materialism and homogeneity, excels at this. But Hollywood poured nine figures into True Lies as an investment, first and foremost. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold both swear they’d have helped Dushku if they’d known about her sexual assault at the hands of Joel Kramer. I want to believe them. But frankly, for a film that expensive, in a culture that obsessed with money and power dynamics, I have my doubts that they would or could have. But if we want a better Hollywood, one that welcomes women, people of color, and women of color, we have to kick out all the Joel Kramers, no matter how rich and powerful. Fiat justitia ruat cælum.
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