Flipping the script
Muslims seek to change their Hollywood storyline
By Jake Armstrong 02/24/2011
What happened when a Muslim man marrying the daughter of a radical cleric learned he was adopted and Jewish? A diminished understanding of the Muslim people and their faith — at least when that sequence played out last year in a big-screen comedy.
That’s the opinion of an organization looking to rewrite the role the Islamic faith has played in Hollywood.
For the past three years, the so-called “Hollywood Bureau” of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) has been meeting with studio and TV executives to enhance the relationship between popular media and the Muslim community while working to see that productions accurately portray their faith and its diverse people.
Last week, MPAC wrapped up the first of series of screenwriting workshops for Muslims interested in lending both their creativity and cultural perspective to scripts that can play a large part in how the American public views Islam.
Prior to the bureau’s debut, films often did not make much distinction between extremists and Muslims, and tended to single out certain parts of the culture, said Deana Nassar, who for the past year has served as MPAC’s Hollywood liaison.
“You just saw a lot of one-dimensional characters,” Nassar said. “They would just be the terrorist or the corrupt Arab billionaire or the submissive Muslim wife — very stereotypical, linear plotlines that didn’t really examine the complexity of the culture and the people and the religion.”
At this weekend’s Academy Awards ceremony, one of the nominated films delves directly into the heart of the issue. “Killing in the Name,” a 38-minute film up for best short subject documentary, follows a Jordanian man who is compelled to better understand and publicly denounce terrorism after more than two dozen of his family members were killed in 2005 when a suicide bomber attacked a hotel during his wedding reception. One critic said the documentary suffered from “a striking absence of objectivity.”
Though she hadn’t seen the film, Nassar said its subject was particularly painful, since she and others at MPAC knew people killed in the blast. “You’d hope that a documentary would begin to look at the social stuff beyond that and sort of see how we can get to the root of that problem,” she said.
“That’s the sort of thing we are trying to promote,” she said. “Anything that shows the people of the region are human, and maybe even gets to the heart of the economic disparity that needs to be addressed so that we can get rid of the violent element of the society,”
But Nassar continues in her mission even when the portrayal of Muslims isn’t so favorable. “Most people are not maliciously trying to sabotage a community or paint a negative picture of a community,” she said. “It mostly comes out of ignorance. When you can approach somebody and say you can be a resource for them, most people are wiling to take that. They want to tell good stories too,”
Nassar said shows like “The Good Wife,” “Community,” “Lie to Me” and “The Simpsons” have taken on the task and dealt with Muslims in ways that humanize the characters and dismiss stereotypes. “‘It’s changing. We’d like to see the change happen more rapidly, but I think it is moving in the right direction,” she said.
However, “The Infidel,” a British comedy released last year in which a Muslim man learns he’s Jewish and suffers backlash, is among the particularly bad culturally offensive films, according to Nassar. Still, the film did receive some critical praise for taking on the Jewish-Muslim rift.
Additionally, more Muslims are getting in front of the camera, Nassar said. That’s because the children of Muslim immigrants feel much more empowered to take on different career paths than their parents. “Typically the expectation was that you come here and your children would become doctors or engineers or pharmacists,” she said. “Now they are venturing more confidently into the humanities or the arts.”
Out in the echo chamber that is the Internet, views on the group’s efforts diverge. A shamelessly Islamophobic blog — Bare Naked Islam — delved into subject of MPAC’s work in Hollywood and suggested the demise of the once-popular TV show “24” was a result of MPAC’s campaign — and a sign that “Hollywood lefties are scared of Muslims.” The post attracted 56 comments in about two weeks, with a number of commenters calling Islam a violent religion while simultaneously threatening violence themselves.