What’s Wrong With This Picture?

by Guest Contributor Jehanzeb Dar, originally published at Muslim Reverie

If you’re having trouble trying to figure out what’s wrong with this newly revealed poster for Disney’s upcoming film, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” it may help if I pointed out that the title character is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. In other words, the prince of Persia is not played by a Persian/Iranian. Big surprise, huh?

Why is this a big deal? Well, considering that negative perceptions of Middle-Easterners and/or Muslims have increased since 9/11 (and haven’t gotten better according to statistics and civil rights incidents reported by CAIR), a relatively anticipated film like “Prince of Persia” would seem like the perfect opportunity to help break stereotypes and misconceptions about Middle-Easterners. The film is based on a very popular video game of the same title, which allows you to play the role of a Persian prince who has to save his kingdom (or world) from a time-altered reality. I remember playing the game when it was released in 2003 and even though it’s filled with Orientalist stereotypes, I always felt the story and character depictions could be tweaked into a mainstream film with serious potential (and by that, I mean a film with an actual story, real character development, and appreciation for the culture it intends to represent).

Unfortunately, Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t the only White actor playing a Middle-Eastern character. Gemma Arterton, who plays Tamina, the film’s version of Farah, an Indian character from the video game, is also White. Ben Kingsley is also cast as a Persian character, and while he is of half-Indian descent, many Iranians recall how poorly he played an Iranian father in “House of Sand and Fog.” The best part (sarcasm) is that Alfred Molina will play a Persian again after his abusive and oppressive Iranian husband role in the 1991 propaganda film, “Not Without My Daughter”! As a user on IMDB commented: “Tamina = Indian / Gemma Arterton= White; What the hell is going on?”

Yeah, so what is going on? It’s not like Iranian actors and actresses are non-existent. A simple explanation may come from the fact that the film is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the Hollywood producer of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and other successful mega-hit blockbusters. It seems like he wanted to play it “safe” since casting real Persians/Iranians would supposedly jeopardize the film’s box office success. In other words, Bruckheimer is more concerned about raking in the dough than conveying important messages about a community that he’s representing (read: exploiting) in his latest B-movie.

It’s important to note that this has happened before. Remember the animated film, “Sinbad and the Seven Seas” released by Dreamworks in 2003? The legend of Sinbad, an Arab sailor, is a classic Arabian Nights tale which the animated film distanced itself from in the most direct way possible. In his article, “Why Hollywood Drew a Veil Over Sinbad’s Arab Roots,” Sean Clarke writes:

…[I]n this version, Sinbad is from Syracuse (in Sicily, as opposed to New York State). The love of his life, Marina, is a noblewoman of Thebes. His estranged best friend is Proteus, the son of King Daimas, and his most dangerous enemy is Eris, the goddess of chaos. Every Arab reference has been removed, and replaced with something vaguely Greek.

Jack G. Shaheen, the author of “Reel Bad Arabs,” added:

This was an ideal opportunity to shatter some stereotypes about Arab and Muslim villains. When I spoke to Jeffrey Katzenberg – a visionary producer – I asked him to include some reference to Arabs or Arab culture. He didn’t seem surprised that I mentioned it, which presumably means that it was discussed early on in the development of the film.

I think maybe they decided to play it safe, not to ruffle any feathers by having neither Arab heroes nor Arab villains. Basically they’re out to make as much money as possible, and I think they were worried that if they took a risk on an Arab hero they might have suffered at the box office…”

The same argument can be made about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” where a Middle-Eastern man, Jesus (peace be upon him), was played by a White American actor, Jim Caviezel. As William Rivers Pitt wrote in his article, “‘The Passion’ of the Americans,” putting a “white Jesus Christ to the cross on film will generate a far more emotional response from the American viewing public than the crucifixion of a savior who actually looks like he is from the Middle East.” Similarly, it seems that Hollywood filmmakers don’t believe an American audience can connect with “Prince of Persia” if the main character, God forbid, was actually played by an Iranian/Persian actor!

There isn’t any doubt in my mind that concerns were raised about “Prince of Persia” among many Hollywood producers since Iran is (wrongly) labeled an “existential” and “nuclear threat” to Israel. As with the Sinbad animated film, it seems that authentic Persian history, facts, and roots are going to be ignored in favor of Hollywood’s own Orientalized and exocitized version of the Middle-East — one in which brown people are played by White actors. It’s an extremely offensive and insulting modern form of Blackface which says only White people can play central Middle-Eastern characters.

Hollywood’s ethnocentrism shines shamelessly again.