What’s Wrong With This Picture?

prince of persia

This post has been cross-posted on Racialicious.

If you’re having trouble trying to figure out what’s wrong with this newly revealed poster for Disney’s upcoming film, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” it may help if I pointed out that the title character is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. In other words, the prince of Persia is not played by a Persian/Iranian. Big surprise, huh?

Why is this a big deal? Well, considering that negative perceptions of Middle-Easterners and/or Muslims have increased since 9/11 (and haven’t gotten better according to statistics and civil rights incidents reported by CAIR), a relatively anticipated film like “Prince of Persia” would seem like the perfect opportunity to help break stereotypes and misconceptions about Middle-Easterners. The film is based on a very popular video game of the same title, which allows you to play the role of a Persian prince who has to save his kingdom (or world) from a time-altered reality. I remember playing the game when it was released in 2003 and even though it’s filled with Orientalist stereotypes, I always felt the story and character depictions could be tweaked into a mainstream film with serious potential (and by that, I mean a film with an actual story, real character development, and appreciation for the culture it intends to represent).

Unfortunately, Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t the only White actor playing a Middle-Eastern character. Gemma Arterton, who plays Tamina, the film’s version of Farah, an Indian character from the video game, is also White. Ben Kingsley is also cast as a Persian character, and while he is of half-Indian descent, many Iranians recall how poorly he played an Iranian father in “House of Sand and Fog.” The best part (sarcasm) is that Alfred Molina will play a Persian again after his abusive and oppressive Iranian husband role in the 1991 propaganda film, “Not Without My Daughter”! As a user on IMDB commented: “Tamina = Indian / Gemma Arterton= White; What the hell is going on?”

Yeah, so what is going on? It’s not like Iranian actors and actresses are non-existent. A simple explanation may come from the fact that the film is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the Hollywood producer of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and other successful mega-hit blockbusters. It seems like he wanted to play it “safe” since casting real Persians/Iranians would supposedly jeopardize the film’s box office success. In other words, Bruckheimer is more concerned about raking in the dough than conveying important messages about a community that he’s representing (read: exploiting) in his latest B-movie.

It’s important to note that this has happened before. Remember the animated film, “Sinbad and the Seven Seas” released by Dreamworks in 2003? The legend of Sinbad, an Arab sailor, is a classic Arabian Nights tale which the animated film distanced itself from in the most direct way possible. In his article, “Why Hollywood Drew a Veil Over Sinbad’s Arab Roots,” Sean Clarke writes:

…[I]n this version, Sinbad is from Syracuse (in Sicily, as opposed to New York State). The love of his life, Marina, is a noblewoman of Thebes. His estranged best friend is Proteus, the son of King Daimas, and his most dangerous enemy is Eris, the goddess of chaos. Every Arab reference has been removed, and replaced with something vaguely Greek.

Jack G. Shaheen, the author of “Reel Bad Arabs,” added:

This was an ideal opportunity to shatter some stereotypes about Arab and Muslim villains. When I spoke to Jeffrey Katzenberg – a visionary producer – I asked him to include some reference to Arabs or Arab culture. He didn’t seem surprised that I mentioned it, which presumably means that it was discussed early on in the development of the film.

I think maybe they decided to play it safe, not to ruffle any feathers by having neither Arab heroes nor Arab villains. Basically they’re out to make as much money as possible, and I think they were worried that if they took a risk on an Arab hero they might have suffered at the box office…”

The same argument can be made about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” where a Middle-Eastern man, Jesus (peace be upon him), was played by a White American actor, Jim Caviezel. As William Rivers Pitt wrote in his article, “‘The Passion’ of the Americans,” putting a “white Jesus Christ to the cross on film will generate a far more emotional response from the American viewing public than the crucifixion of a savior who actually looks like he is from the Middle East.”  Similarly, it seems that Hollywood filmmakers don’t believe an American audience can connect with “Prince of Persia” if the main character, God forbid, was actually played by an Iranian/Persian actor!

There isn’t any doubt in my mind that concerns were raised about “Prince of Persia” among many Hollywood producers since Iran is (wrongly) labeled an “existential” and “nuclear threat” to Israel. As with the Sinbad animated film, it seems that authentic Persian history, facts, and roots are going to be ignored in favor of Hollywood’s own Orientalized and exocitized version of the Middle-East — one in which brown people are played by White actors. It’s an extremely offensive and insulting modern form of Blackface which says only White people can play central Middle-Eastern characters.

Hollywood’s ethnocentrism shines shamelessly again.

23 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With This Picture?

  1. This is all very ironic at the very least, because I know many Iranians who tell people that they are Persian because North Americans don’t know that Persia is Iran, and they don’t want to be involved in political discussions.

    Hollywood has a long tradition of revising culture for various ethnic groups and using white, or other ethnic groups to play them. They use established stars to guarantee box office, so that for example in the past Anthony Quinn played Italian, Mexicans, Greeks, Arabs, etc.

    Even a movie aimed at being a blockbuster would be a great place to introduce at least one new star, here an Iranian, or Iranian-American.

    To her credit Queen Noor of Jordan has worked to change Hollywood representation of Arabs.

    The worst movie has to be the Siege (1998) where terrorists take Manhattan, Denzel Washington saves it, Tony Shaloub helps him and Annette Benning is the crazy spy who fell in love with the Arab terrorist.

    I didn’t see the Passion of the Christ–just annoyed myself to death reading about it. From the revisionist Catholicism based on an anti-semitic nun’s violent and sexual visions, to the pseudo-Aramaic, to the gratuitous violence for the sake of box office and for externalizing Gibson’s suicidal depression a la Freud, to the anti-Semitism debate it was a disaster. Not a levantine in the film that I am aware of. John Dominic Crossan’s writings/interviews on the film are interesting. He is a former priest and a Christ scholar who as done alot of work on the historical Jesus, and written not only scholarly articles and books but intelligent ones for the wider audience.

    His website is informative and his autobiography there, “Memories”, is interesting on his personal religious and career evolution.

    http://www.johndominiccrossan.com/

    interesting interview including on Islam

    http://www.findingmywaymovie.com/johndominiccrossan.html

    and brilliant and funny on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of THE Christ (lol :) )

    http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2004/03/Hymn-To-A-Savage-God.aspx

    On a happier note, I just learned that an Iranian student here is modelling for l’Oreal. She is very pretty and very sweet, with dark eyes and hair, and very light skin.

    • Good points, Chiara :)

      It amazes me that Hollywood doesn’t realize how prejudice and ethnocentric it’s being. I hear arguments like, “Who cares if he’s Iranian or not, he’s a good actor.” Um, that’s really not the point. The point is that the movie is called “Prince of Persia” and the lead character is supposed to be Persian. What’s wrong with getting a real Persian/Iranian to play the part?

      You’re right, this isn’t the first time it has happened with Middle-Easterners, South Asians, Latinos, and so on. And I remember “The Siege.” Argh, that is one of the most Islamophobic films I’ve ever seen, which is why I refuse to watch anything by Edward Zwick again.

      You’re not missing much if you haven’t seen “The Passion of the Christ.” It’s relentless beating, blood, and torture from beginning to end. In other words, it’s a typical Mel Gibson gore-fest where every possible brutal thing that could happen to a human being is projected on the screen. I wasn’t aware of that it was based on “revisionist Catholicism based on an anti-semitic nun’s violent and sexual visions.” Wow. Thanks for the links, I’ll have to check them out!

      • What’s wrong with getting a real Persian/Iranian to play the part?

        Because how many well known Persian actors can carry a movie like Jake can? Simple, it’s about making the $$$

      • How do you know a Persian actor couldn’t carry a movie? And it is all about the money, but that doesn’t make it right. That’s why people speak out and advocate for equal and fair casting.

  2. Hey Jehanzeb how’s it going? I agree with you that Hollywood is racist and ethnocentric even today especially towards Middle Easterners/Muslims. Jack Shaheen also said that Hollywood feels no guilt stereotyping Arabs/Muslims even today in this post 9/11/Iraq/Afghanstan wars world.

    WRT to POP what I find interesting is that Jake Gyllenhaal is Jewish and I read somewhere that Jewish actors are most often used to play Middle Eastern characters while Indians play Pakistani/South Asian Muslim characters with a few Middle Eastern roles thrown in there. I personallly don’t think this movie will do all that well because its fans are disappointed in the changes they made (like by changing Farah to Tamina). I wonder why the fans didn’t come out and protest the whitification of this movie the same way Avatar fans went out and vocally protested what Hollywood did to their beloved TV series…anyone who thinks white privelege doesn’t exist in Hollywood, only “colorblind casting” should be told about movies like POP and Avatar.

    • Salaam Rchoudh!

      Yeah, I have no doubt in my mind that producers probably had a serious conversation about casting an A-list White actor to play the part instead of a real Iranian.

      Interesting point about Jews playing Middle-Easterners. Be sure to see a BIG DEBATE about this in the future as the release for this film gets closer. I remember when I first heard about “300,” I started early with my problems with it, and the responses were relatively small. When the movie was released, that’s when the full debate and controversy really took off. I can already see the producers arguing either that (A) Persians are really Aryan, therefore it’s okay to cast a White non-Iranian to play the part, or (B) casting a Jew to play a Persian is ok since Cyrus the Great was the Persian king who liberated the Jews in his kingdom. Something silly along those lines.

      I heard some people say that Jews are Semites so it’s “ok” for Jake Gyllenhaal to play the part. But this is so ignorant because Persians are not Semites! They’re confusing Persians with Arabs (who *are* Semites).

      If Tamina is supposed to be Farah, then I think we might as well start casting White actors to play Black characters. It’s so insulting because it basically tells Middle-Easterners and South Asians that they can NOT be action/adventure stars. Instead, they’re limited to supporting roles or the stereotypical “terrorist” or “Quick-E mart” roles.

      I’ve been reading about the same things regarding Avatar. It’s all about making money; they don’t want to “risk” casting people of color unless they’re established stars like Will Smith or Denzel Washington.

  3. I think “colourblind casting” is relatively foolish, in the sense that certain roles only work with a specific “colour” cast, and preferrably an excellent actor from the appropriate “colour group”, whether Native American, Iranian, Arab, Pakistani or whatever. This gives opportunities to either American or international actors and makes more sense. For example, I spent alot of “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” wondering when they would explain how an American was jailed there, because John Hurt was so obviously out of place, yet Sonia Braga and Raul Julia were so obviously well cast; one of the best things about “Dances with Wolves” was the native casting (especially Native Canadian Graham Greene); there many Arab actors who could play Othello who must look like a Moor for the play to make sense.

    • Ditto! Imagine seeing people of color in leading roles in mainstream Hollywood films. Why is that an action/adventure movie always has to have a White actor as the hero?

      Take Stargate, for example. Why does it have to be a White American man who discovers how to crack the code and find the seventh symbol? Why couldn’t it have been an Egyptian? Or how about we see a movie with Asian characters who are doing something else besides being stereotypical and/or doing martial arts?

  4. Eerily enough, I’m working on a post in a related vein that also references “Reel Bad Arabs.” BTW, cosign about the whitewashing. I’m somewhat of the opinion that is has less to do with perceived White anxiety about “brown-ness” and more to do with very real White anxiety about ethno-racial marginalization. In other words, ithe whole idea is that if White people aren’t centerstage – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ad infinitum – their heads explode or something. I mean, that would be the only logical way to explain the pathological nature of this manner of “whitewashing” right? Yep. :- /

    • Hey Fiqah,

      Oh wow, really? I can’t wait to read the post you’re working on. It’s good to see that others are writing about these things otherwise people aren’t going to understand why it’s so offensive.

      I agree with what you’re saying. If White people aren’t center stage 24/7, I think certain people are going to think that “minorities are trying to take over our country.” But the film industry has it all nicely organized and it knows exactly where people of color belong, i.e. in stereotypical roles, in the background, or in pointless supporting roles.

      Imagine seeing a real Persian/Iranian on this poster. Imagine it posted in movie theaters nationwide. It isn’t hard to imagine people walking by it and scoffing, “Now they got sand-ni*#@$ taking over Hollywood?” Anyone who doubts that needs to be reminded of the racist things people said about Obama during his campaign.

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  6. @Jehanzeb:

    If Tamina is supposed to be Farah, then I think we might as well start casting White actors to play Black characters.

    Bad example, bud. This actually happens all the time. A lot of Black American historical figures (Black cowboys, fronteirspeople, patriots, etc) have been re-imagined as White. More recently, Black former marine Jason Thomas, who helped rescue a pair of Port Authority officers from the rubble on 9/11, was played by White actor Dave Karnes.in the Oliver Stone film “World Trade Center”. This is someone who isn’t even a deceased historical figure of unknown or “disputed” heritage. He’s a living, breathing Black man. Stone’s reply when the “oversight” was revealed: “Sorry, didn’t know he was a Black guy. Oops, my bad.”

    Since you can bet that the uproar would have been deafening if a Black actor had portrayed a White “hero” it’s really not the best parallel to make. I understand the point you were going for here. But the fact of the matter is that Black folks are whitewashed in this way as well, and have been in multiple mediums, for centuries in this country, and most of the time it doesn’t even make a blip on the social radar.

    • WOW. I didn’t know that about “World Trade Center”! I can’t believe no one brought that up. That’s absolutely repulsive.

      You’re right. When I wrote my comment, I was thinking about characters like Blade, Spawn, and Othello, and how Hollywood might as well use White actors to play them. But you’re right, I shouldn’t have said that to give the impression it doesn’t happen anymore with Black characters.

      • Othello is one of the longest running “black face” characters in history. It is such a racist play I could barely study it when it was on a required course as part of the required reading.
        I saw a live production with a famous Israeli actor in the lead role–some how more offensive. Still black face and a thick Israeli accent to his Shakespeare. His “Desdemona!” (think Brando’s “Stella!” with an Israeli accent) still rings in my ears. Good thing I don’t really like the play anyway! LOL :)

  7. Absolutely no worries! It’s still a great post, and it explores something that absolutely needs to be discussed. I

    Oh, I’m tweaking that post as we speak…fingers crossed! :D

  8. @ Chiara,

    Yes, you’re absolutely right about Othello. I have the same sentiments towards the character too. Another bad example from me. My bad!

    The one line that I remember from Othello is, “Are we turned Turks?!” Which is a line that he delivers. Um, what?!!

    • No, your GOOD! LOL! My flashbacks from my post-traumatic Othello disorder, prevented me from fully appreciating your comment. However, the Turks quote set me off looking for any Turks in the play–of course they were a major part of the premise of the play and the historical underpinnings of the original Italian short story it is based on. Now I can add Christian vs Muslim, to the racial stereotypes and misogyny of the play! Throw in the structural abnormalities of the time sequence, and I’m just about to produce a major literary paper on the whole thing. But for full academic career credit I’ll definitely have to add in Iago, and a section on “Iago in the contemporary Academic Dept”, not mentioning the name of the one I worked with of course! LOL :)

      • PS I almost forgot the most relevent part–Laurence Olivier was one of the last to play Othello in black face. Paul Robeson was the longest running Othello, and James Earl Jones also starred as “the Moor” aka the Black african/arab depending on the interpretation of the day. So there is hope for ethnically/racially correct casting.

        Of course the whole Othello as a Moor ie a Muslim who stayed in Spain after the Reconquista and converted to Catholicism to do so, raises the whole, he can be a general in the Venetian Army but he’s still just a hot blooded irrational Other, and conflcted between civilization and passion, with passion winning out, of course! No match for the Italian, Iago.

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