This Prince is Not Persian

It makes sense that I am seeing “Prince of Persia” posters at bus stops and malls. The movie is set for release later this month. It does not make sense, however, that I am expected to believe Jake Gyllenhaal is Persian. He is not. In fact, I will not even address his character as “The Prince” in this article (or anywhere else for that matter). I will just call him Jake.

“Hey, look, ‘Prince of Persia,’” my brother said, pointing at the movie poster.

“You aren’t going to see that, are you?” I asked.

“Pfft, yeah right, I’m not going to watch that racist s&#%!!”

Jake and Disney, the studio responsible for this racebending/whitewashed atrocity (surprise, surprise), seem to have their fair share of fans and supporters. On internet forums and threads, I see fans writing things like, “Ooh Jake is so hot,” or “I Love Jake Gyllenhaal,” or “I’m so glad they chose him to play the prince!” I saw one comment where someone called the casting racist and the response was, “Get over it! He’s hot!”

As I wrote in last year’s post about the film, the level of ignorance is disturbing. It reminds me when the film “300” – a White supremacist’s wet dream – was released and many viewers spoke about the “hotness” of Gerard Butler as a way of covering up the film’s disgusting racism. In that film, which I have written extensively about, you may recall that the Persians were not only portrayed by people of color, but also horribly demonized without apology. Now, when the Persians are the “good guys,” they are played by lovely White people.

The first insult is that people of color, in this case Persians and South Asians, are not attractive people. They cannot be “hot.” I know I am not the only person who has heard White people say, directly or indirectly, that dark skin is not attractive as light skin. The second insult is that heroic Persian and South Asian characters cannot be played by real Persians and South Asians. They don’t know what it means to be “heroic.” Only White people do.

This is blatant Orientalism. Jake is the Orientalist, he is not the Persian. He embodies the West’s history of domination in the East, where the “Oriental,” the “other,” must be spoken for, must be represented by the West, by the White man, and must be feared or even hated. The “Oriental” is obliterated into non-existence and not granted the freedom or access to represent him/herself. This is an example of what the late Edward Said called “positional superiority,” i.e. the White Westerner can exploit the East in such a manner simply because it can.

But, as some fans complain, Hollywood needs to sell tickets. It needs to make money. Poor Hollywood. Oh, then I guess that makes everything “ok.” So what if there was a missed opportunity to break rising stereotypes and misconceptions about Middle-Easterners and South Asians. I’m sure brown people and real Persians understand that Jake and Disney need the money, right?

No. While some fans and viewers drool over Jake’s fake prince, I propose that protesters join forces with Racebending.com, which has been raising awareness about the whitewashing in “The Last Airbender, “ and boycott this film. We shouldn’t give money to a greedy industry that does not even allow minorities to represent themselves.

Be sure to read the post I wrote about the film last year.

UPDATE: Read this hilarious and brilliant article by Arab-American comedian, Dean Obeidallah:  The Prince of Persia was a White Dude?!!

UPDATE 2: Sara Haghdoosti, an Iranian blogger at “The Punch,” has written an excellent piece, Jake Gyllenhaal stole my identity and my video game. Be sure to check it out!

Clarification about skin color: I’m getting some comments about Persians being light-skinned.  I am not disputing this.  I am fully aware that Persians, like many other ethnic groups, range from light skin to dark skin.  The only reason I say “brown” is because the character is depicted as brown in the first three video games. My argument, like Dean Obeidallah’s, is that talented Persian and South Asian actors (the female lead from the video game is Indian) should be allowed to play protagonists in box office hits (Ben Kingsley, who is half-Indian, plays the role of a villain, similar to how Dev Patel, another Indian actor, is playing the villain in “The Last Airbender.”)  A light-skinned Persian could have been chosen for the role and that would have been fine.  I am also not speaking for the Iranian community; I am an advocate for equal and fair opportunity and casting for people of color in general.  I write mostly about the media’s representation of Muslims, South Asians, Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups.  It is inaccurate to assume or interpret that I am speaking for a community that is not my own.

47 thoughts on “This Prince is Not Persian

  1. I guess as someone whose ancestry includes (among many other strains) folks from the First Nations in America, I’ve gotten used to this. It’s only recently that indigenous actors have been used to portray native Americans (and it’s still all too rare).

    I’ve seen plenty of gorgeous people of all races. The idea that they couldn’t find an attractive leading man of middle eastern descent is ridiculous. But you don’t expect these people to make sense, do you?

    • Thanks for your comment and thoughts!

      You wrote: “But you don’t expect these people to make sense, do you?”

      No, but I do think it’s important to speak up and hold them accountable. It’s never a bad thing to raise awareness and speak out against racism, ethnocentrism, and prejudice. :)

  2. tanya says:

    uhhhh….guess what??? this story isn’t written, produced, or directed by persians or even specifically for persians. therefore, of course, it is written in the perspective of the other. I am so sick of this orientalizm crap. Of course when one group writes about or in the voice of another group, it is different than that group representing itself. that’s natural, not racist. I don’t see anyone calling it awful when easterners write or talk about what westerners think or do and how off base it can be. Why not? because, it is completely natural and unavoidable! Give it a rest…And meanwhile, tell the Iranians to make their own wonderful movie about Persia!!! They have great filmmakers there and I am sure they could do it better justice than hollywood, which as you said, is an outsider.

    • Tanya,

      You don’t really demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of Orientalism and you seem to be missing a lot of points. Hollywood’s influence in the world is so immense that it overshadows a lot of great films in other countries. In general, if filmmakers from non-Western countries want to receive recognition, they must find an American distributor who believes the film will SELL and make money.

      How do you know Iranians haven’t made their own films about Persia? Have you heard of them? Have you seen any Iranian films?

      Your comment about the way “easterners” depict westerners in their films is a generalization and completely ignores the massive influence of Hollywood films around the world. You are also pulling what I call “the flying carpet fallacy.” Read about it here:

      http://muslimreverie.wordpress.com/2010/04/09/the-flying-carpet-fallacy/

  3. Hina says:

    A lot of things that tend to be pushed or approved by mainstream media do not try to remove any of the -isms from culture and societies (whether it’s racism, sexism, ethnicism, etc.). It is up to us as viewers to critically examine what is presented to us and make our own conclusions as to whether or not the information we are given is prejudiced to the extent that it is dangerous.

    Excellent post Jehanzeb! South Asian or Middle Eastern actors in Hollywood flicks or on television are too often portrayed as the local thickly-accented convenience store clerk or the terrorist working as part of a sleeper cell. Not to say that “white” people are not represented in a bad light (which is not excusable either). However North America is a multicultural society and the scope of the audience that take in Western media is a lot larger.

  4. Well, I got very stuck on the fact that at least in that photo, Jake looks like my 1/2 Italian 1/2 Irish cousin–when he still had his hair.

    That said, I next got stuck on wondering why they can’t find a hot South Asian or Persian actor in that time honoured Hollywood scouting tradition of bringing European stars to Hollywood, people like the brown Sophia Loren (Italians were not always trendy, they even were considered a different race).

    I guess the reason is, as you state, too much Orientalism in the way, and too firm an eye on the box office.

  5. Love the magic carpet post. As someone who regularly critiques my own (American) culture, I hope I can hear others’ criticisms as well, but it never hurts to be reminded. I’ll do my best never to transport a conversation away on one!

  6. Katya says:

    Okay, I’m just going to stop reading right where I was for just a moment. I just have to say:

    Persians are physically *gorgeous* people; how can anyone think otherwise? Both the men and the women are beautiful, and almost always, which is rarely the case around the world. Usually one just finds a minority of truly good-looking people among any ethnicity or race; the rest are average. This is of course to be expected; the further one moves away from the mean, the fewer the number of whatever one is measuring.

    Of course, attractiveness is to a certain degree subjective, but I don’t think many could argue that there are a disproportionately large number of beautiful Iranians!

    On the other hand, maybe it’s just my own personal taste, but I don’t really think so! :)

    Now back to reading…where was I…?

  7. Katya says:

    Sorry to be so OCD, but upon re-reading my post, I think it would be clearer if I said, “…I don’t think many could argue with my opinion that there are a disproportionately large number of beautiful Iranians!” Otherwise one might think that I meant the opposite.

    Okay, I’ll go away now… :)

  8. Shah Jahan says:

    For the information of the author: Iranians are white.

    Even though, “white” is neither a race nor an ethnicity, but it’s slang. More scientifically speaking, we should say Iranians are Caucasian.

    Let’s put aside the discussion of Orientalism for the moment. The Orientalism is just one view of looking at the events of past 500 years, coined by Edward Said of Columbia University. There are other views as well. Just plain fact: When Persians were running Empires and cultivating the basis of the modern civilization, the Europeans were walking half naked in Europe and forget about the America. It didn’t even exist.

    Let’s even put the above discussion aside and be more realistic. Let’s ask what is white and who is white? The answer to the question is the function of who are you asking the question from. If you would have asked a sixteenth century European settler, he/she might have said Angelo-Saxons, a self portray of their own ethnicity only (a self-centered view). In the 19th and early 20th century America, most of the people who are called “white” today were considered non-whites. Among this group are the Irish, Italians, Greeks, East Euros, and the Jews. But after WWII, all of a sudden all these people were assimilated into the main stream US and almost overnight were labeled as Whites.

    Now the same people who were not considered white just 50 years ago are telling some other immigrants that they are not white. My advice to you would be: just wait another 50 years when the Latinos and even Phillipinos would be called White! It is already happening: look at their children.

  9. eighmie says:

    according to wikipedia, a caucasia is, “The term Caucasian race (or Caucasoid, sometimes also Europid, or Europoid[1]) (Not to confuse Northcaucasian race) denotes the race or phenotypes of some or all of the indigenous human populations of Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia.” I’m just saying, white is a terrible descriptor for race, and that the Caucasian descriptor is more apt, OMG there is a Caucasian portraying a Caucasian on screen, the horror.

  10. @ Shah Jahan and Eighmie,

    Please read the comments under my post here:

    http://muslimreverie.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/prince-of-persia-the-brother-is-brown/#comments

    I am South Asian and of Kashmiri descent. I do not self-identify as Caucasian. There are many Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and others who are considered Aryan too and many are darker-skinned.

    But skin color is beside the point. Does Jake Gyllenhaal self-identify as an ethnic Persian?

  11. Dave says:

    I felt the same way when Will Smith played the role of James West in “Wild Wild West”, but I guess it was ok then, we call it “Progress” or some sort of “breakthrough”.

    It’s a movie, take it for what it is. Why is everyone so hypersensitive? Besides, what Persian actor can you name that Hollywood would hire to get people into the theaters? Yeah, didn’t think so.

    • You’re ignoring White privilege, Dave. White people have more opportunities in the film industry than people of color do. It’s a mistake to equate the experiences that White people and people of color have with racism. Both are wrong, however they must be discussed differently. For instance, a White person who is on the receiving end of a racial slur shouldn’t turn to people of color and say, “Hey, I understand racism now! I’ve experienced it too.” The problem here is that there is institutional and systematic racism in countries where White people represent the dominant culture. Just look at media imagery and examine how people of color are poorly represented and/or limited to stereotypical roles.

      As for a Persian actor in Hollywood: there are up-and-coming stars in Hollywood all the time. Did anyone know who Hugh Jackman was when he starred in “X-Men?” Granted, the film is about making money and selling tickets. Using a big name actor like Jake Gyllehnaal will certainly draw an audience, but the fact that the assumption is “we can’t sell a movie if we have a Persian actor” represents a huge problem.

      Hollywood needs to change. And slowly, but surely, I think it will.

      • Dave says:

        Admin note: Your comment was edited to fit within the guidelines of my comment policy.

        Oh how can I forget “White Privilege” how long does that albatross have to hang around our necks?

        This is a VIDEO GAME action movie, not some authentic re-enactment of an event in time.

        I don’t think it was about having a Persian actor or not having a Persian actor. I think it was more “Movies after video games really never do well, and we need to try and recoup some of our losses, we need to put in a name someone knows”

        Besides, do you really want a horrible movie like this representing “Persian People”? I mean, is it so bad that your thought is “Hey even if it’s a shitty movie we’ll take it, through a Persian in there!” Honestly, I’d think Persians would be more upset that they cast a Persian in such a crappy movie. Jake has some success’s under his belt. Imagine if you were the Persian actor trying to bust into Hollywood in the states, is this what you want to be known for? Probably not.

        I think there is more here at play than “institutional racism” we don’t know the entire story. I can understand if this was some authentic period piece, but this is just a Video Game gone movie. I’m sure The Rock regrets doing Doom. That went over real well now didn’t it.

  12. I was inspired by both Qusay’s post on his blog Qusay Today, A Muslim Miss USA: Bikinis and Bombshells, which also questions the casting of the Prince of Persia, and a comment there about Jake being hot, to do a little research. I thought the comment I left there as a result of my research would be relevant here to the explanation (not justification of the casting):

    While trying to find out how the Swedish-American-Askenazi (more Germanic than Middle Eastern) Jewish Gyllenhaal looks (in the promo pic only) like my Italian-Irish Catholic Canadian cousin (who looks like his maternal Irish side), I found this bit of information from Wiki on casting the Prince of Persia:

    The leading characters of the film all speak with a recognisable British English accent, albeit with a slight Middle Eastern colour.

    I’ve never heard an accent described as having a colour; usually auditory metaphors are used, not visual ones of colouring; so now I’m not sure if the accent makes the casting all good, or the description of the accent makes it all the more an issue of “colour”.

    What is clear and important to know is that it is a “tent pole production”–no nothing to do with the Middle East, more to do with the Big Top of a circus–a production with a mega-marketing effort expected to function as the financial support or “tent pole” for the whole studio. This helps explain the casting of name actors who are a big box office draw, rather than up and coming relatively unknowns, or established but not a huge box office draw.

    I suspect my knowledge of this film will remain on the same plane as my knowledge of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ–theoretical only! :)

  13. Dave :

    This is a VIDEO GAME action movie, not some authentic re-enactment of an event in time.

    I don’t think it was about having a Persian actor or not having a Persian actor. I think it was more “Movies after video games really never do well, and we need to try and recoup some of our losses, we need to put in a name someone knows”

    Then why invest 200 million dollars in the movie if they know it’s going to “suck” anyway? The video game was popular enough to inspire a film, and as a fan of the game, I was actually looking forward to seeing the movie.

    As for White privilege: it is a reality. Read Tim Wise’s work or check out this blog entry:

    http://resistracism.wordpress.com/we-heard-it-before/

  14. Caublasianispanic says:

    This is just like that Last Samurai movie starring… Tom Cruise. Some one needs to make a movie called ‘The Last White Man’ and have 50 cent star in it.

  15. Leonore Waluk says:

    I totally agree. I know that there are always competent actors who could very well portray characters of their own nationality. Why do the producers to that? I get really incensed when I see an american actress protraying an english character and the accent is absolutely atrocious. It is not only coloured, asian or middle eastern who are slighted by stupidity of movie producers.
    I would love to see more true to life characters of any extraction. Thanks for the privilege of commenting

  16. Josh says:

    Admin Note: Josh, my comment policy makes it clear that I will not publish personal attacks on the author and readers. Your calling White privilege and Orientalism “invented terms” clearly displays your lack of knowledge about these subjects. White privilege is used in critical race theory and it is a reality. Without acknowledging the social status of White people in the White-majority countries, you cannot understand the struggles of people of color. Please read the literature, namely the works of Peggy McIntosh and Tim Wise, and then get back to me.

  17. Moore says:

    Let me preface my comment by saying that I am an evangelical, white, European-American. Now, labels aside, the VERY first thing that I said when I heard that Jake Gyllenhaal would be playing the quote-unqoute “Prince of Persia” was, “Why is a Swede playing a Persian?” True, Hollywood doesn’t possess a vast knowledge of the Persian actor market, but perhaps they could have gone with someone a tiny bit more believable as Persian. I recognize that historical “Persian” has been somewhat muddled by a succession of overthrows and infiltrations of what might originally have been a Persian people, but they could have picked almost anything more realistic than Swedish. Unless he was a Swede of Persian descent. I am equally offended, let it be said, by the news that a black man is playing a Norse God in an upcoming film, or the idea that a white American might one day play Kunta Kinte. I would have no problem with a black, or brown, or whatever man playing non-race-specific roles such as Captain James Kirk or Jack Ryan. Needless to say that, while I haven’t boycotted the movie out of principle or anything, the first thing that my kids will tell you if asked about the movie is, “Oh, yeah. It was good, but my mom thinks it’s stupid that the lead actor isn’t remotely Persian.” This isn’t necessarily a race thing; for me, it’s a realism thing. A story is written a certain way for a reason, and to mess with a fundamental element of the story messes up the story. P.S. I have always thought that many Middle Eastern and West/South Asian actors were physically beautiful. The idea that women don’t get that is crazy.

    • andrea says:

      I just saw the movie and I was like, ok, where the hell are the Persian people. Ok, so maybe they will not be the leads, but at least they will be a few in the supporting roles. I even stayed for the credits and nada.

      Come on Jerry, not the father or one of the brothers could have been of Persian decent. Surely, there are enough Persians in Beverly Hills, you could have found one or two. Not even a token. Damn.
      If you are going to use the Persian so freely, you should at least use one token Persian.

      Finally, a movie where the Persians were not terrorist and you got a happy Disney ending…

      This is like making a movie about Africans and not using one single black person.

      Finally you can call it what you like, Aryan, White, light, blue eyes, whatever! I dont care how light you are, what blue colored eyes you have, you can be paler than the palest Irish. But at the end of the day none of your people were in the movie.

      Persian people you need to get it together and make your own movies cause obviously Jerry and Disney are not your avocates. Granted I know this is a movie about a video game but enough is enough. Yall need to Represent! Persian Power !!!

  18. Persians make brilliant films, in Farsi, with Farsi actors. They are shown in the West in arthouse cinemas, repertory cinemas, university campus cinemas and courses, film festivals, and any place with “cinematheque” in the title (including in Hong Kong). In major cities you can find DVDs and videos in the libraries (academic and municipal) and in the Middle Eastern neighbourhood, which usually has immigrant Iranians/Persians/Farsi-speakers.

    I would highly recommend one view contemporary Iranian/Persian cinema to get an impression of what themes and artistry pre-occupy those living in Iran currently or only recently emigrated. There are also good lessons in safely conveying a dissenting message under a restrictive regime (as there are in Bunuel films).

  19. Thoams Giavanti says:

    Admin Note: Your comment was deleted because it does not fit within the comment moderation guidelines. If you cannot engage in a mature and civil discussion with someone you disagree with, then this blog is not for you. Also, please read the other links I have shared in the post – I am not only one who takes issue with racebending.

  20. Natasha says:

    I read all of the comments and some related articles. I know a lot on this subject of Iranians being “people of color” or not. And I am pretty sure EVERYBODY knows how Hollywood is run.

    It was just interesting to me to see someone so outraged by this 50yr old institution called “casting” … Roles are given to NAMES over talent. Did this really surprise you? By all means, get upset over this ridiculous philosophy, but to portray it as potential racism? Well, that is simply incorrect. Because this specific film is that of Disney, I will say some of your criticisms are deserving, though.

    I can see the whole point that Hollywood pretty much is the Queen Bee, as it were, overshadowing the entire realm of film production…I just think this particular instance -a movie based off a fun story for a video game- was definitely just for fun and in no way NEEDS to have a true Persian for the fake plot with, shall we say, NO historical undertones.

    I’ll put it out there: I am half “White.” But technically speaking, this half white-ness comes from my father who was born in IRAN. My mother is of German/Irish decent; a typical ignorant American would say she’s Caucasian as all Hell and that my father is a “gd foreigner!”

    While I specifically identify myself to the American government as “White/Non-Hispanic,” my simple point is that Jake Gyllenhaal, who yes, is definitely “So hot!” & “An amazing actor” just really looks like my Azerbaijani-Persian family members…He is some type of Jew or another, with the body of a…umm…Prince, who has random blue eyes. With the help of his grown-out locks of hair, I’d say he friggin pulled it off! GOOD JOB to Susie Figgis over in “casting” at the Prince of Persia set! :)

    And since we all KNOW Jake Gyllenhaal’s people are reading this: I LOVE YOU, JAKE. I hope you are cast as an awesome Asian warrior next.

    ps: 300……What a joke.

    • Natasha,

      So, what I’m getting from your message is that we should overlook whitewashing in Hollywood and forget the fact that Iranian and other Middle-Eastern actors work very hard to land heroic roles. I am curious as to what you think about the other articles and I wonder if you commented on their posts in addition to mine (especially the post written by the Iranian woman, Sara Haghdoosti).

      Of course I’m not surprised by Hollywood’s decision to choose names over talent, or cast a non-Iranian to play the Prince of Persia (Hollywood recently did it again with “The Social Network” by casting a White actor to play an Indian character). However, activism and advocating for equality means to challenge the status quo. That is how you bring change. As an artist, I run into Middle-Eastern and South Asian actors who struggle to find non-stereotypical roles, so I think if you actually sat down and listened to their experiences, you would be more appreciative of this post. That was a nice shout out to Jake Gyllenhaal, by the way. I’m flattered that you think he actually reads this blog.

      So, what happens when the Prince of Persia is accurately cast? I’m currently working on a project where the Prince of Persia is actually played by *gasp* a real Iranian. It’s not a “Prince of Persia” film, but it’s obvious where I’m going with it. If you’re interested, check back to my blog in the next few months.

      Peace.

      p.s. Did you read my critique on “300”? It’s posted here:

      http://muslimreverie.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/frank-miller’s-“300″-and-the-persistence-of-accepted-racism/

  21. Alan says:

    J. Maybe they did try to find that talent. There are a couple of them out there. But what if some of them said no thank you.

    It is a script about a very unIslamic thing/fantasy, talkong about gods and such. I would bet that if a real Persian star had played the lead role, some right wing fanatic in his country would put him in jail for crimes against Islam/promoting unIslamic values and vice. Many Hardcore gov’t don’t tolerate fantasy. I lived in the middle east, not Persia, when I was little and I doubt any Persian star would have taken the role. So in defense of the casting, I would bet that you would find a lookalike of all the main cast members in Persia. And they used many muslim extras…though definitely not Persian…this is Disney. Morrocans don’t look Persian.

    Another thought say you just hired a Persian actor from Iran… And his handlers don’t like your story halfway through shooting. They say change it or we will pull or guy. What director in his right mind would want that possibility.

  22. Ali Shahrvand says:

    Persians do not look like white Europeans!!!

    Why is it that only ‘Persians’ claim to look white all the time? I don’t see white people saying that about them at all.
    It is entertaining when a “Persian” come on forums and pretends to be white American and goes on to post that ‘Persians’ are white with light hair and light eyes.

    ROFLMAO.

    Any person with half a brain can tune in to CNN and see the news from Iran and see that Iranians are brown skinned and look just like other people of the middle east/Pakistan and India.
    Better yet, go look at a typical Iranian American who has NOT bleached his or her hair and is NOT wearing blue contacts…….then you will see they look basically brown.

    NOTE: The word Persian is in quotes, since Persia DOES NOT exist!!!!

    I am Iranian in case you are wondering. Yes I don’t call my self ‘Persian’ as I am not ashamed of my origins.

  23. Show me a Persian or Middle Eastern Actor who can speak English fluently who has as much box office draw as Glydenal and I’m sure the casting directors would consider it.
    Problem is I cannot think of a single one that could have pulled it off. Alexander Siddig is a very talented and attractive actor but he is hardly an action hero.

    • Are we still having a conversation about this? And are you saying that there aren’t any Persian actors who speak English fluently? Should we excuse the race-bending of this film because casting a Persian actor wouldn’t have “raked in the dough”? So, it’s all about money then?

      Did anyone hear about Hugh Jackman before his appearance in “X-Men”? There are such things as breakthrough performances. How do you think Will Smith and Denzel Washington made it big in Hollywood? Who is to say that a Persian actor couldn’t be just as successful?

  24. Alaskan says:

    Jake is half Jewish. Jews are a Middle Eastern people, I don’t see what the big fuss is about?
    PS Aryan is not race, to those of you saying Persians are ‘Aryan’.

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