For nearly four decades, Southern Illinois University professor Dr. Jack Shaheen taught mass media classes during the day and at night toiled on books detailing how Arabs have been portrayed in popular culture. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies’ month-long “Race and Hollywood: Arab Images on Film” festival this month, Shaheen now has millions of new students. The author of “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” helped to curate the festival and co-hosts the series with TCM host Robert Osborne each Tuesday and Thursday night throughout July.
“I’m 75 years of age,” Shaheen shared Tuesday morning. “For decades, I did all this research with just my wife. I didn’t even have a graduate assistant. Suddenly, to have an opportunity on network television to discuss these images and to make them more visible is immensely gratifying and humbling. I no longer feel alone.”
Throughout the month, Shaheen and Osborne have shown and discussed the combined impact of decades of negative, stereotypical and often mythologized images of the Middle East. From Elvis Presley gyrating his hips through Harum Scarum” to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope crooning atop a camel in “Road to Morocco,” Shaheen has guided viewers through an in-depth analysis of inaccurate, racist and just flat out wrong information Hollywood has woven into popular entertainment.
After weeks of wading through flying carpets, sinister sheiks and less than trustworthy maidens, tonight and Thursday’s concluding films in the festival focus on evenhanded portrayals and positive images of Arabs created outside of Hollywood. One notable example is tonight’s screening of “Three Kings,” the 1999 post-Gulf War drama starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. Shaheen served as a Middle East consultant on the picture. “To be honest, when I first saw the script I was inclined to turn down the job,” he conceded. “But ultimately, through the dedication of the producer and the director, we made it a better film. It’s not a sugar-coated film by any means but it’s a more measured examination.”
For Thursday night’s concluding evening of films, Shaheen selected one of his favorite movies, 2003’s “Rana’s Wedding” from Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad. The film shot on location, sets a bride on a deadline to the altar against the backdrop of road blocks, rock-throwing and armed soldiers of occupied Palestine. “It’s funny, it’s sad and it humanizes in a very subtle way,” assessed Shaheen. “To have an opportunity to present a film like it to the TCM audience is marvelous.”
Unlike the African-American, Asian, Native American and Latino images presented in past TCM “Race & Hollywood” festivals, viewers cannot comfortably place Arab images into the rear view mirror in a post-9/11 world.
“That’s what makes a series like this so important,” said Shaheen. “We’ve had a month to discuss these images in an in-depth and intelligent way. Robert Osborne was curious and asked the exact right questions and then allowed me to discuss things in a thoughtful manner on network television. Thanks to TCM, we’re taking an unprecedented step forward and I’m extremely grateful for that.”