Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Inadequacy of Simplified Complex Representations - Andrew Covert

 One of the more modern films we examined in this course was The Siege, a 1998 Twentieth Century Fox production written by Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes, and Edward Zwick. The film was directed by Zwick as well. By coincidence I saw this movie shortly before starting this class. My initial impression of the movie was that it was, for the most part, another unremarkable “terrorist” themed action flick: complete with explosions, shootings, and torture. The only things that seemed particularly remarkable about it were that it made an effort to include “good” Arab/Muslim characters in the plot and to condone torture and unlawful detainment. The movie centers not only around an outbreak of terrorist violence in New York City, but the military's detainment of thousands of innocent Arab Americans as well. After viewing it again in the context of this course, however, I have gained an understanding of how these sort of simplified complex representations are not enough to counter negative representations of Arabs and Muslims. Though the movie may be sympathetic and raise important questions about race in the US, its impetus is the all too common depiction of Arabs and Muslims as dangerous terrorists.
         Professor Alsultany defined simplified complex representations as a “representational mode that has become standard since 9/11 [that] seeks to balance a negative representation with a positive one”[1]. She argues that this phenomenon emerged out of the multicultural movement of the Gulf War, which stressed cultural tolerance and the importance of diversity, and has become increasingly standardized since September Eleventh. She explains that writers, directors, and producers began attempting to complicate their representations of Arabs by simply introducing characters who relate positively to the United States. She ultimately concludes that while the “good” Arab characters provide an alternative narrative of Arab identity for the viewer, they ultimately fail to displace the negative connotations made by the “bad”, militant anti-American Arabs, and have actually formed “a new kind of racism, one that projects antiracism and multiculturalism on the surface but simultaneously produces the logics and affects necessary to legitimize racist policies and practices”[2]. In short, simplified complex representations help to position the US as an “enlightened” and “postracial” country while simultaneously allowing the common negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims to continue.
           The presence of “good” Arabs in The Siege was best exemplified by the FBI Agent Frank Haddad, played by Tony Shalhoub. Haddad is the Arabic-speaking partner of the story's protagonist, Agent Anthony Hubbard (played by Denzel Washington). He is also an Arab American whose son is detained in the military camp during the occupation of New York City. A large part of the movie is the conflict Shalhoub's character feels between his Muslim and American identities. When Denzel Washington's character confronts him in the detainment camp while he's searching for his son, Haddad throws his badge at his partner, telling him that he won't be the FBI's “sand nigger” anymore.

Agent Frank Haddad, played by Tony Shalhoub, tells his partner, Agent Hubbard (Denzel Washington) that he's quitting the FBI because the very government he works for has unlawfully interned his son.
          Shortly thereafter, Hubbard convinces Haddad to help him neutralize the last terrorist cell. Hubbard tells Hubbard that he can get his son back if he fulfills his duties and helps end the conflict. Haddad takes back his badge and helps Hubbard foil the last terrorist.

Agent Hubbard (left) played by Denzel Washington, convinces Haddad to return to the FBI so that he can help end the conflict and thus get his son back, not the other way around.
          When I first viewed this film, I thought Haddad's character worked on the reader's perceptions of Arabs and Muslims in a positive way. After viewing it in tandem with the concept of simplified complex representations, however, I find the movie much more problematic as it sets up an overly simplistic binary between “good” and “bad” Arabs, where one is vehemently anti-American and the other is a strict conception of patriotism: Haddad only gets his son back once he helps Hubbard and the FBI kill the last terrorist. It's as if Haddad must prove his loyalty before he is awarded his family member's freedom.
In all sorts of television and cinema, simplified complex representations like Frank Haddad are not only insufficient to displace the negative “terrorist” figures popular in post-September Eleventh film, they also ingrain narrow notions of what it means to be an acceptable Arab-American. I agree with Alsultany that this sort of writing is a quick solution for racial intolerance in a racist civilization eager to call itself “postracial”. Perhaps films like The Siege are better than films that include no positive Arab/Muslim characters at all, but I think it is also important to recognize oversimplifications for what they are, whether they be about Arab-Americans or any other identity. Viewers should be vigilant for these sort of oversimplifications in emerging film and media in order to understand how they might be problematic for the group of people in question and how they might ingrain the viewer with narrow conceptions of appropriate patriotism, masculinity, religiosity, or any other quality people generally aspire to achieve within their societies.

[1] Evelyn Alsultany, “Introduction,” in Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11, (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 14.
[2] Ibid., 16.

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