The aptly named `Guilty' updates Professor Shaheen's acclaimed book `Reel Bad Arabs' which was written just before Sept. 11, 2001. In each book he underscores, and documents the close connection between the political world and the entertainment one (yet, rather amazingly, he never uses the world "propaganda."). He quotes Jack Valenti in the prologue: "Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA." Few anecdotes better underscore this nexus than the one told in the same section about a special screening of the movie `Black Hawk Down' , before its general release, for 800 top Washington officials and military brass, including Donald Rumsfeld and Oliver North, in which they were permitted to suggest changes.
Shaheen places his subject, Hollywood, and its movies, within the greater context of the post 9/11 world in the first chapter, quoting the anti-Islamic and anti-Arab bigotry and prejudice of such public figures as Ann Coulter, Donald Rumsfeld and Tom Tancredo. The inflammatory remarks clearly led to an increase in hate-crimes, which frequently spill over against other darker skinned, and "different-looking" people like the Sikhs. Shaheen also reminds us of similar negative depictions of other ethnic groups: American Indians, Blacks, Orientals, Latinos and Jews. For the Arabs, the four negative stereotypes that are constantly promoted, as Shaheen says, are that they are all fabulously wealth; barbaric and uncultured; sex maniacs; and revel in acts of terrorism.
In his chapter on the negative movies about Arabs since 9-11, he identifies a separate category, which he calls "cameos." These are gratuitous slurs against Arabs and Islam in movies that have nothing to do with this subject, or even "terrorism." I was first struck by this concept when I read Theodore H. White's "In Search of History - A Personal Adventure" in which he made the passing remark about the "so-called" government of Kuwait. Nothing before, or after, on that subject, and certainly no comparisons with the deficiencies of other governments. All is not negative however, and Shaheen devotes an entire chapter to improved Hollywood coverage of the Arabs - certainly one of the best movies, in my opinion, as well as Shaheen's is `Rendition', released in 2007, which shows an Egyptian-born American engineer kidnapped and tortured, and one of the lessons his CIA capturers learn is that torture does not work.
Shaheen devotes a major chapter to "solutions", that is, how change may be affected. Some of his ideas seem wildly impractical in the current political climate, but he reminds us how the same could have been said about the other ethnic groups, and how they eventually were able to change their portrayal in Hollywood, and on TV. Unfortunately he does not address what the economists call "the sunk costs", that is, the tremendous economic interests in maintaining the status quo, the need to have enemies and promote conflict, all of which President Eisenhower famously warned us about in his farewell address. Nonetheless, Shaheen lists several positive steps, from new films, re-makes, to an Arab American Entertainment summit that individuals of good-will can take to change the current situation.
The second half of the book is a detailed analysis of specific movies in the post 9-11 period. Encouragingly, as he says, one-third of the movies fall into the "recommended" or "even-handed" category. He identifies the 2007 release, "The Kingdom" as the most anti-Arab movie in the post 9-11 period, and he devotes almost five pages to his analysis. What he did not discuss however was that the movie received a positive review in Saudi Arabia's `Arab News.' I too thought the movie terrible, and so was even more stunned by the positive review. Living in New Mexico now, I have seen video narratives from American Indians, who tell of their own childhood, and how they would actually root for the cowboys, when they were attacked by the "savages." Ah, the awesome power of propaganda. Clearly a bit of "consciousness raising" is still needed in the Arab world.
Shahaan's meticulous documentation of the movies and TV shows that shape our view of reality is an essential read for those who desire a better understanding of the workings of "The Masters of War."
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on September 13, 2008)