As with the majority of minorities, Muslims have not enjoyed a healthy relationship with Hollywood. Muslim characters are more often than not heavily soaked in stereotypes, lacking nuance or depth. While Muslims are not the only minority to receive this kind of treatment, upon reading or viewing the work of academic Dr. Jack Shaheen, you will quickly find that Muslims and Arabs have had a particularly bad time. His work, Reel Bad Arabs, highlights the extent of Hollywood’s problem with Arabs and Muslims. In a world where movies are watched a lot more than books are read, the images that they are delivering become all the more important. The following is a list of movies that while being far from perfect, offer a nice antidote to the one-dimensional “movie Muslim” offered up by the orientalist mind.
1. The Message (1976)
This epic attempted to tackle the formidable task of telling the story of the birth of Islam. Syrian director Moustapha Akkad, who would go on to produce horror flic Halloween, found difficulty in finding a Hollywood studio to produce the film without casting an actor as the Prophet Muhammad. The film was eventually made without showing the Prophet or the four caliphs, rendering it halal for mainstream Muslims.
Starring Hollywood heavyweights Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas of yesteryear, the story itself covers the period from Muhammad’s call to prophecy through to the re-conquest of Mecca and touches on the lives of great characters in Muslim history such as Bilal, the former slave and first muezzin, Ammar and his parents, the first martyrs in Islam, Summayah and Yassir, among many others. Despite having turned 40 this year, I believe the movie remains as watchable as ever. It is about time another major player attempted to take on this story, though.
2. The Lion Of The Desert (1980)
This telling of the life of Omar Mukhtar, the great 20th Century Libyan revolutionary, features many of the same names as The Message; Moustapha Akkad producing and directing, Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas starring. Quinn’s memorable performance as the ever-noble Mukhtar is complemented by Oliver Reed (of Oliver! and Gladiator fame) as the menacing Italian, General Graziani. The film focused on Libya’s attempts to rid themselves of their Italian colonizers and the war that ensued. In Mukhtar, we see the life of an ethical revolutionary who does not compromise his morals or mercy when attempting to reach his goals. Spoiler alert – it is the first movie I ever shed a tear watching.
3. Ali (2001)
Michael Mann’s take on Muhammad Ali’s life is not without its critics; it was always going to be difficult to encapsulate the life and spirit of one of the most dynamic sportsmen ever. The film takes us from his first fight with Sonny Liston, through his battles with the U.S. Judicial system over his refusal of the draft for Vietnam, climaxing with the memorable “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman. The film goes for a ‘warts and all’ approach, showing Ali at his best, risking his career and legacy when refusing to fight a war for the U.S. “against other poor people” (“ain’t no Vietcong ever called me Nigger”), while also giving us a look at lower points such as his marriage infidelities. It earned Will Smith an Academy award nomination while earning Jamie Foxx an Academy Award win for his supporting role as Drew Bundini Brown, Ali’s hilarious Jewish motivator.
4. Malcolm X (1992)
Directed by Spike Lee, this biopic spans the life of the great civil rights leader, Malcolm X. Giving us glimpses into his childhood as it is shattered by the murder of his preacher Father at the hands of white supremacists, through to his years as the hustling, stealing, drug-taking, “Detroit Red”, as well as his time in prison and eventual joining of the Nation of Islam. We see his rise within the movement as he proved to be a magnetic presence, helping increase the movement’s popularity, before falling foul of its leadership and being exiled. We also witness his eventual conversion to orthodox Islam. Denzel Washington gives a memorable performance in the starring role that earned him an Academy Award nomination and is supported by the great Angela Bassett, playing Malcolm’s loving wife Betty. Martin Scorsese put this movie in his top 10 of the 1990’s and it is easy to see why. Malcolm’s life story should be known to all; his commitment to exposing and promoting the truth is inspirational while his willingness to disregard his past convictions when faced with new realisations is as refreshing as it is rare.
5. Kingdom Of Heaven (2001)
Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of this movie’s heavyweight line-up that includes Liam Neeson, Orlando Bloom, Brendan Gleeson, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, Edward Norton, and Michael Sheen, is the underrepresentation of Arabic actors. Granted, it does include two fine performances by the Syrian Ghassan Massoud and the British-Sudanese Alexander Siddig. The disappointment is deepened given that this movie was initially tipped to be focused on Saladin (to be played by Sean Connery), a prospect many Arabs would have been salivating over. Despite Saladin’s relegation to a screen-time moderate, supporting role, his significance in the film is still pertinent and the film does still provide several opportunities to showcase the great leader’s intelligence, mercy, and justice. The focus of Ridley Scott’s movie on religious conflict makes it all the more worthy of a watch in today’s turbulent times.
6. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)
This romantic drama starring Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, and Kristen Scott Thomas, tells the fictional tale of a British Fish expert (McGregor) who is employed by a millionaire fishing-enthusiast Sheikh who wishes to fish for wild Salmon in his native Yemen. I will willfully admit that I began this movie with a heavy heart, expecting a negative portrayal of Arabs; a “Sheikh” who would spare no cost just to fund his own bizarre vision? I anticipated incompetency and stupidity of stereotypical levels. I was pleasantly surprised to find the Arabic Sheikh, played well by Egyptian Amr Waked, to be an admirable character, well stocked in class and vision. As well as this, the movie proves to be an enjoyable, light-hearted watch.
7. The 13th Warrior (1999)
This not so famous movie also proved to be the 23rd biggest box-office bomb to date. Based on Michel Crichton’s book, Eaters of the Dead, it tells the tale of an Iraqi poet who is exiled from his land who eventually ends up in the company of Norsemen who are themselves facing an existential threat. Financial ruin aside, the movie provided us with a heroic, Muslim lead. Ok, so we might have had Spanish Antonio Banderas playing an Iraqi sultan, but beggars can’t be choosers, right? Banderas’s character is the perfect antidote to the all too common on-screen Arab; he’s honorable, intelligent, and brave. True to the age within which it is set, he is seen as being advanced, benefitting from the enlightened state of the Arabs of the time when compared to the European’s of the Dark Age. Go ahead, buy a copy and help offset the $100 million it lost.
8. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991)
You would be forgiven for thinking the last place you would find a positive Muslim character is a 1991 production of Robin Hood starring Kevin Costner. But lo and behold, the character of Arabic, Muslim ‘Azeem’ is certainly something quite azeem. The fact that the Arabic character is not played by an Arabic actor is almost redeemed by the fact that he is played by the wonderful Morgan Freeman. Dodgy prayer technique aside, Azeem proves to be a healthy representation of Islam and faithful companion to Robin Hood. His knowledge of alchemy, true to the age, gives Robin Hood and his men an upper hand in facing the Sheriff of Nottingham. His grace gives rise to one of the more memorable quotes from the film; when asked by an innocent girl if God “painted him”, he heartily laughs and replies: “Yes, because Allah loves wondrous varieties”.
9. Body Of Lies (2008)
The second entry directed by the Legendary Ridley Scott, this 2008 thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, is worthy of discussion. A case could certainly be made that yet another terrorism-focused movie is not what the world needs, however this movie definitely provides more nuance than most. Another gripe could be made due to what could be argued as favorable white-washing of Arabic Mukhabarat (State Intelligence Forces), however the presence of the character of Aisha, an Iranian-Jordanian nurse, secures its entry to this list. Her character could not be further from either orientalist extreme; sultry seductress or oppressed, housebound, victim. She is strong and feminine, engaging with DiCaprio’s character with confidence while proudly wearing her hijab. Russell Crowe delivers a master class in playing the arrogant, aloof, and delightfully hateable Ed Hoffman.
10. The `Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)
The ever-impressive Riz Ahmed stars alongside Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland in this political drama about a young Pakistani wrestling with his identity in the post-9/11 world. Based on the novel of the same name, Ahmed plays lead character Changez, a young man brought to the U.S. on a Princeton scholarship. Post-graduate life brings with it high-flying Wall Street work and love with Hudson’s Erica. The shifts taking place in the world around him force Changez to ask himself questions about who he is and where he belongs, questions that I am sure many young Muslims can relate to. Changez is a far cry from the one-dimensional fundamentalist that Hollywood all too often produces.
Have you ever seen any of these movies?