By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
So now Gordon listens to the Middle-Eastern actors he hires — even when they play bad guys — and tries to make them human. For instance, he once hired Maz Jobrani to play a would-be terrorist who has a change of heart about detonating a truck bomb when he sees a group of children playing at the target site.
Gordon’s thinking is, in part a business decision: He’d noticed that Arab-American performers were turning down parts in his and other shows, and he knew that the pool of Middle-Eastern actors was not so huge in Los Angeles that he could afford to ignore those who didn’t want to stand up and utter clichés like: “In the name of Allah, I will kill you all.”
Gordon is front and center — along with the politically oriented film production company Participant Media — which made Syriana and The Kite Runner — Democratic Party donor and billionaire Haim Saban and the Brookings Institution — in a coordinated effort to change how Hollywood and its writers, directors and producers portray the Middle East.
They feel the news media are falling down on the job, and understand that the entertainment industry’s global reach gives them a unique influence. One idea is to promote a series of dialogues with writers and experts on various aspects of Middle-Eastern culture, who could explain facets of the practice of Islam, or discuss day-to-day life in Egypt or Syria. They are considering creating a help line for writers wondering, say, what any given Middle Easterner eats for breakfast.
But for now, the stereotypes haven’t shifted much. One Palestinian-American actress, Nicole Pano, told the Weekly she has trouble getting work because she’s attractive. “They want ugly,” she says. “They want us to play terrorists, and terrorists are ugly.” She has had more luck playing Italians, happily going along with the assumption that because her last name ends in “o,” she must be Italian.
One casting director who specializes in casting Middle Easterners, Jane Sobo, says she confronts casual prejudice all the time. She has an Algerian client who has difficulty getting work because of his “almost feminine” facial features. “He is not booking roles because his face isn’t swarthy enough to intimidate lily-white audiences,” she says.
One veteran Egyptian-born actor, Sayed Badreya (he plays Saddam in Oliver Stone’s upcoming Bush movie, W.), says the only response to such stereotypes is to play along with them, and then gently subvert them. “For the first five minutes, the audience will think you are an Arab, then they will think of you as a character,” he says, “that you, as the actor, have to do.”
He continues to play bad guys but is established enough to pick his directors — opting as much as possible for those smart enough to take his suggestions of what is and is not authentically Arab. Like Jobrani and Ahmed, Badreya believes the best way to overcome the stereotypes is for Middle-Eastern performers to generate their own material. “The more we do that, the more Hollywood will be scared of the competition they might offer,” he says. (He recently had a role in an independent L.A. movie called American East, and has more projects like it in the pipeline.) “No white guy makes films about Harlem, they leave that to Spike Lee.... I want to follow Spike Lee and do something for my own people.”