“Jihadis”*, Skinheads and Film Representation

By Guest Contributor Fiqah, originally published at Possum Stew

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A couple of weeks back,  AJ Plaid and I collaborated on a humor piece  for Racialicious about White guys who had received the Black Folk Stamp of Approval for Screen Time with Sistahs™.  It was a mostly tongue-in-cheek piece that was surprisingly popular (if the number of comments are any indication of how well-received it was, anyway).  As the comments came in with suggestions of who to add to the list, I noticed that quite a few actors were being noted as “hot” in their film roles as skinheads. Not the cool, Trojan skinheads. The regular, scary, violent, racist kind. Now, as a general rule, as I mentioned on the thread “hot skinhead” is an oxymoron to me, so this turn in conversation was one I found intriguing:

Hm. As a related aside, I find it interesting that the mainstream American film narrative allows for the (fictional) existence of the Hot Young WHITE Supremacist/Ideological Extremist…but NOT for the (fictional) existence of the Hot Young BROWN Religious/Ideological Extremist. Meh. Another post for some other day.

Over the last few weeks, I have watched people come running to defend the indefensible. I have heard and read defense of the officers who shot Marwa Sherbini’s husband as he was attempting to save his pregnant wife’s life, counterarguments to the blatant racism and sexism exhibited by certain senators during the Sotomayor hearings, dismissals of salient allegations of racist character coding in recent summer blockbusters , and protests  justifying the removal of little Black children – babies, really – from a swimming pool on a hot-assed summer day. ( “Change the complexion of the pool”?  Really? Newsflash: eumelanin doesn’t wash off. Good grief.)

I have to say that of all these, the story that has unsettled me most is the murder of Egyptian Muslim Mrs. Sherbini at the hands of White German Axel W.  Typically, mainstream media frames the “lone (White) gunman” as an anomaly.  However, in the aftermath of this tragedy, I  have read comments on blogs defending – to the point of applauding  - Axel W.’s actions.  (I am not providing links for these threads, but suffice it to say that is indeed an interesting experience to feel chilled to the bone in the middle of July.)

The overwhelming sentiment on some of these threads is that the monster who killed Mrs. Sherbini was just like any other nice young man who was so disturbed by the changing “face” of his country that he just snapped. And the husband being shot, well, don’t all those men beat the women anyway? Really, Sherbini, by thumbing her nose at outward assimilation as dictated by her choice of garb, kinda brought all of this on herself.

The callous dismissal of Mrs. Sherbini’s fundamental human value, and the simultaneous  public defense of her murderer, stunned me. What, I wondered, exactly IS “understandable rage”?  When is acting out of frustration – to violent, fatal excess – forgivable? Is it ever?  If so, then for whom? More urgently, how had the compassion of Axel W.’s supporters failed to be stirred by what to me is one of the tenderest representations of humanity: a pregnant mother?

The Black Folk Stamp of Approval for Screen Time with Sistahs™ got me thinking about film representations of skinheads, but what would it look like if we viewed representations of “Jihadis”* side-by-side with so-called dreamy Skinheads?

The Jihadi: Fanatical, Crazed, Ruthless, Butterfingered

”The Arab serves as the ultimate outsider, the other, who doesn’t pray to the same God, and who can be made to be less human,” says [Dr. Jack] Shaheen, who argues that movies and TV shows do matter — that they shape public opinion at home and abroad. “[...]These movies are on television constantly. The images last forever. They never go away.” -From Washington Post article “Cast of Villians: ‘Reel Bad Arabs’  Takes on Hollywood Stereotyping”(Photo from The Delta Force courtesy of  Middle East Americas)

The ways in which we perceive various groups are directly influenced by popular representations of those groups.  In Reel Bad Arabs, author Jack Shaheen asserts that in terms of group representation by Hollywood, Arabs are and have been  the most maligned group. After reading that, I racked my brain trying to remember films that portrayed Arabs in a three-dimensional, humane way.   Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 classic   The Battle of Algiers  was one that came to mind immediately (it was not a Hollywood production).  The film, a fictionalized account of the bitter, bloody eight-year Algerian war for independence, struck a particular chord with me the first time I watched it as an undergrad. I had just spent several months in a former French colony in West Africa that still struggled beneath its colonial legacy as well as modern imperialism, I had seen first-hand just how racist a lot of Europeans can be, particularly to the inhabitants of former colonies. I also knew, from speaking with my professors and the parents of friends there,  just how significant Algeria’s hard-won independence had been for all the French colonies. Last but not least, I have always really liked attractive ”Fist-Up” people.  The character of Ali La Pointe (played with devastating intensity by Brahim Hadjadj) definitely fit the bill.

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One of the most notable facets of the character of Ali La Pointe, the film’s partially reformed-hood protagonist, is that throughout The Battle of Algiers he is portrayed as a sympathetic character.  Far from perfect, La Pointe is often brusque and prone to the occasional outburst of temper.He’s  not a nice guy, but he is ostensibly a good one.  In fact, all of the Algerian resistance, forced to extreme tactics because they are backed into a corner, are the Good Guys. On the other hand,  the French occupiers (and the director does not spare French civilians, who are complicit by their very presence)  are the Bad Guys.

Through the magic of the director’s story-telling, however, the audience is never allowed to imagine away the humanity of either side.  It is understood that these are people who have been pushed to behavioral extremes and ideological extremism by rapidly escalating sociopolitical disruption.  Each of the film’s primary characters has a sympathetic back-story. Their more violent actions – the shooting of a gendarme, a cafe bombing – carried out with no small amount of ambivalence and hesitation, are governed by the politics of desperation.  These tactics, while undesirable, are necessary. It is significant that these nuanced, complex portrayals of Arab men and women as three-dimensional human beings was not produced in Hollywood, where the Arab sheik, warrior and bellydancer figures were already ingrained Orientalist images by 1966.

As Dr. Shaheen notes, much has happened in the world since 1979, but one-dimensional, flattened, monolithic Orientalist depictions of Arabs remain largely unchanged.  In the course of my research, I found no Hollywood film that featured a sympathetic Arab ideological extremist as a protagonist. No surprise there, but what was a bit of a shock was that I was also unable to find a single recent (last 30 years or so) Hollywood movie that  portrayed  the Jihadi as anything outside of crazed, brutal,  fanatical,  ruthless, cunning, bumbling, deceptive, (usually) ugly and evil.  Evidencing the classic  Catch-22 of troping, these often contradictory qualities (e.g., cunning AND bumbling – how?)  are allowed to exist within the same character.

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 Textbook example:  Jihadi Arab Bad Guy Salim Abu Aziz (played by stock Arab Bad Guy, er-uhm…Punjabi Art Malik, pictured above receiving his comically ironic come-uppance) in True Lies Aziz is the leader of the Crimson Jihad (sigh…), a terrorist organization so terror-y that all the other terror-y terrorist groups give it wide berth.  From his videotaped manifesto: “ You have murdered our women, and our children, and bombed our cities from afar, like cowards, and you dare to call us terrorists?”  It is worth noting here that the indisputable truth of this statement is undermined by the fact that the speaker is, bien sûr,  a foaming-at-the-mouth fanatic.  This often happens in Hollywood films featuring the Jihadi: any legitimate beef about this country’s appalling and deplorably inefficient military strikes and the  countless civilian casualties that have resulted from them is instantly undermined.   That dude with the unibrow and a bomb strapped to his chest said it.  So, you know, hey, no critical analysis of that statement required.

The panic that Aziz’s character’s ruthlessness should inspire in the audience is also negated at key points throughout the film by his bungling: the man renowned for his effectiveness, the man whose code name is “The Sand Spider”,  is somehow also an unmitigated klutz.  As Shaheen notes, the Arab Bad Guy is typically endowed with one of two Achilles’ heels: lecherousness (if the Arab Bad Guy is the Oily Businessman or the Sneaky Sheik) or ineptitude (as Jihadis are usually portrayed as being too singularly-focused on blowing shit up to be distracted with sex). This doesn’t leave a lot of room for textured character development – and that is, of course, the point.

In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, protagonist Harry Trasker’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger)  wife Helen (Jaime Lee Curtis), from whom he has kept his life as a spy secret throughout their marriage, asks him if he’s ever killed anybody. He replies: “Yeah, but they were ALL bad.” So later, when Harry guns down scores of keffiyeh-wearing (?!)  Jihadis, the viewing audience is unmoved. After all, they were all bad.

Shaheen maintains that the most egregiously racist illustration of the above sentiment occurred in 2000’s Rules of Engagement. In the film, Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) a lawyer, is called upon to defend Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), a fellow Vietnam vet and old friend, who issued a retaliatory fire order on a group of Arab civilians – including women and children – in the course of a “rescue” mission (removing Americans from the American embassy in Yemen).  The rest of the film is devoted to Hayes proving that Childers’ order was justified.  As Rules of Engagement plods along the people the Marines gunned down are shown in a humane light in one scene, as they lay dying in a hospital. Empathetic tension is introduced as the audience is given the opportunity to wonder if, perhaps, shooting them was excessive. Of course, at the film’s conclusion, we learn that even the children in the angry mob were armed,and that Childer’s acted well within the bounds of military protocol. Little ones, it seems, are not immune to Hollywood’s Jihadi troping.

Even when portrayals of Arabs veer (slightly) away from single-dimension villainy, they are often brought back around to malevolent center by the end of a film. As Janet Maslin notes in her New York Times.com review of  The Siege:

Though the screenplay [...] is strenuously even-handed and even incorporates a nice-guy, Beirut-born sidekick for Hub (played ably by Tony Shalhoub), the film’s stark images of scheming Arab villains often speak louder than its diplomatic words. Bending over especially far backward, the film gives Ms. Bening’s tough cookie a complex relationship to the Arabs in her past, with lines like: ”My first boyfriend was Palestinian. You know, my father used to say they seduce you with their suffering.” When, late in the film, Arab-Americans are put in internment camps, there is the obligatory cry: ”What if it was black people? Huh? What if it was Italians? Puerto Ricans?” Well-intentioned words don’t change either the film’s visual demonizing of Arab characters or its way of titillating the audience with terrorist stunts.

In the film, CIA operative/possible ethnicity fetishist Elise Kraft (Annette Bening) has a love affair with a handsome, perpetually-nervous Arab informant, Samir Nazhde (played by Sami Bouajila, below).

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Nazdhe’s jumpy because he’s been feeding intelligence regarding planned bombings and the locations and identities of various ”terror cells” to Kraft.  Protagonist Agent Anthony “Hub” Hubbard (played by Denzel Washington) doesn’t trust Nazdhe and warns the normally shrewd Kraft to keep her head on straight. Kraft ensures Hub that Nazhde can be somewhat trusted because, while he is an Arab, he is not an observant Muslim. Here, the film’s anti-Arab subthemes are shifted slightly to imply that it is Islam (a religion, and therefore a choice) and not Arabness per se that is always suspect. This theme, which is underscored by the presence of non-obtrusively faithful Agent Frank Haddad (played by Tony Shalhoub) is driven home when Nazdhe calmly informs the astonished Kraft while performing pre-prayer ablutions that not only is he about to pray,  he is also (dun dun DUNNNNN!) the terror cell the government’s been looking for.  The cunning Jihadi in sheep’s clothing then proceeds to kill his duped lover, and is only stopped from carrying out a massive suicide bombing by Hub. Rather than challenging stereotypes about Arabs, Muslims, and Islam, The Seige subtly and not-so-subtly underscores perceptions of Arabs under the auspices of presenting a “balanced” portrayal of its Arab characters. In this film there simply is no such thing as an Arab Good Guy – only active/potential Jihadis.

The Skinhead: Angst-Ridden, Tortured, Misunderstood, Smokin’ Hawt

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[Romper Stomper's]  portrayal of a bunch of racist sociopaths wreaking havoc has a delirious energy that stirs the emotions. While enticing you to hate the gang [...] the film also gives you the vicarious thrill of being one of the gang. And in Russell Crowe, who plays the skinheads’ sinister leader, Hando, it has a leading man whose mixture of menace and animal magnetism suggests a post-punk answer to Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.” -From New York Times.com article “Review/Film; Of Skinheads High on Hate And Violence”

In the  post-Civil Rights present, open malicious anti-Semitism and racism are viewed by global mainstream society as socially unacceptable.  Neo-Nazism advocates and employs violence against Jewish people, people of color, LGBTQ people, and “race traitors.” So it’s not surprising that the even the fictional neo-Nazi Skinhead is a troubling and highly controversial figure. This could partially explain why there are so few American films with a Skinhead protagonist. It’s exceptionally difficult to construct a sympathetic character out of something so fundamentally repugnant by today’s social standards as a Skinhead.

At least, that’s what I thought. During my research I discovered that some celluloid Skinheads were admired, even revered, by ordinary mainstream audiences.  While searching for graphics for this piece, I found hundreds of sites with variations of this film still of Derek Vinyard (Ed Norton), the protagonist of 1998’s American History X.American History X 1

They usually featured gushing commentary of how “hot” Derek (not Norton) was. One blog showed a photo of a shirtless Derek brandishing a gun in broad daylight on a suburban street. The caption: “Derek is One Bad Ass Motha Focka.” Huhn. The irony of employing the Black vernacular to describe admiration for  a White Supremacist left me momentarily stupefied, but when I recovered my senses, I was able to analyze the statement. Derek, a vicious (but young), racist (but buff), violent (but manly) sociopath may be viewed as a kind of twisted embodiment of White hypermasculinity. This review noted that “[a]dvertisements for the controversy magnet that is American History X seem to be selling Edward Norton’s buff physique, savage scowl and swastika tattoo in equal measure.”

Before the audience learns what landed Derek in prison, the film shows Derek’s gang harassing a Korean storeowner and beating a group of Black men at basketball. Because White masculinity perceives Black (hyper)masculinity as a threat, particularly as it pertains to hip-hop and youth culture, Derek’s over-the-top masculine posturing can aslo be viewed as reinforcing the White status quo, a common theme in movies with Skinhead protagonists. In the film, Derek’s racist leanings, implanted by his father, are cemented when his dad is killed by a Black drug dealer. Derek, seduced by White Power rhetoric,  joins DOC, a neo-Nazi gang, and quickly takes on a leadership role.  It is significant that throughout the film, Derek is presented as a sympathetic character: from angst-filled rage to reformed contrition, the viewer is never allowed to forget that Derek’s circumstances informed his life decisions. He commits two vicious murders, goes to prison for two (?!) years, and is sent reeling down the path to redemption by a shockingly graphic prison rape.  There to help him along: his younger brother Danny’s (Edward Furlong) Black principal Dr. Sweeney (played by Avery Brooks) and Lamont (Guy Torry), a Black fellow inmate…who got six years…for dropping a TV set on a cop’s foot.

Though the film itself is gripping, and the performances all around are top notch, the positing of troubled Black/White relations as the cause of all this misery is unsettling: in one scene where Dr. Sweeney is enlisting Derek’s help to save Danny from following the same route, he confesses that he used to hate White people. (I’m sure this was intended to be a startling revelation and an affinity-building method, but assuming that Sweeney’s hatred of White people never led him to actually murder any, it’s not the neatest parallel to draw.)  Invoking the old  ”I used to be just like you/racism is a two-way street” meme, in light of the severity of Derek’s crimes, is insulting. However, it is also an important component of the film’s relentless message of Derek’s humanity and ultimate redeem-ability.

The salvation of the sexy Skinhead protagonist with the hard-luck back story seems to factor in heavily with regard to a character’s relatability.  In the Russian film Luna Park, (1992) protagonist Andrei (played by Andrei Goutine) is unbridled White Supremacist rage on big old muscley legs. This is, Janet Maslin notes in her review,  no accident:

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Mr. Lounguine is a tough, idiosyncratic film maker who makes very deliberate choices. In the role of Andrei, he has cast a muscular, blandly handsome bodybuilder with no acting experience (”a socialist realist fresco become flesh and blood,” the director has said of his character) and a bellicose air. The film cares less about Andrei’s private thoughts, which often seem anguished and impenetrable, than about the forces that have produced him.

While one could argue that any inner process that isn’t told from the first person in film is difficult to articulate without resorting to soliloquy, Maslin’s observation is spot-on. When it comes to Andrei,  Lounguine would rather show us than tell us. So torn up with some barely identified  (Poverty? Unemployment? Excessive testosterone?) angst that he cannot bear to be sober or alone for very long, Andrei spends most of the first half of the film with his boys, drunk, shirtless and shouting, spewing insults that would give a seasoned sailor pause, and generally being scary. This comedy-drama’s central conflict emerges when a fellow skinhead drunkenly reveals to Andrei that his father, who he had been told was a dead “Aryan war hero,” is actually a man named Naoum (Oleg Borisov), an alive-and-well Jewish musician in Moscow. Andrei then tracks Naoum down to kill him, which he almost does via a minor heart attack when Andrei reveals who he is to Naoum. Of course, as Andrei gets to know his father, he experiences the Skinhead moment of clarity and remorse that leads him directly into a confrontation with his gang (that seems to happen a lot in these movies…);  he ultimately chooses Naoum.  Who he, you know, initially came to Moscow to  stab kill murder visit. Sigh.

Being a handsome, well-muscled and tattooed Skinhead appears to cover a multitude of sins. In the Australian film Romper Stomper (1992),when Skinhead gang leader Hando (played  by Russell Crowe) isn’t bashing someone’s head in, he’s radiating tightly-coiled shirtless menace. (I will note here that Ed Norton seems may have taken a lot of his inspiration for his rendering of Derek from Crowe’s Hando; the similarities are too numerous to be accidental.) The film takes an inordinate amount of pleasure in showcasing the violent rage perpertrated by Hando and his gang, periodically intersplicing it with sex, and allowing the viewing audience to interpret the film from the standpoint of its brutal main characters. While there is no proper redemption at the film’s end for any of its main characters, the figure of Hando stands out unsettlingly not as a sympathetic figure, but as an aspirational one.

 As ludicrous as Hando may be, in Mr. Crowe’s portrayal he exudes an antiheroic charisma that could persuade more forgiving audience members to take him as a role model, a sexy rebel with the wrong cause.

Apparently, the Skinhead is sooooooo hawt that the viewer has to remind themselves that, underneath all that sweaty sexy super-masculine RAWRness,  he’s a vile, repellent and  murderous fucking human being.  Huhn. When’s the last time you read a similar caution in a movie with Jihadis? Right. And you’re never gonna, either.  Unlike the Jihadi, the Skinhead’s ideological extremism allows the racist social hegemonic structure to remain intact. Could explain why our military actively recruits ‘em. Whereas a Jihadi is always a loose cannon, a Skinhead is allowed to be a loaded pistol with the safety on.

Final Thoughts

After 9/11, there was a noticeable drop-off in Hollywood of films depicting Arab/Muslim terrorists. There was also a  coinciding sharp increase in the number of reported hate crimes and incidents of racial-profiling and general harassment of both Muslims and  individuals of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Iranian descent. While researching for this post, I encountered a number of blogs that complained – complained! – about the disappearance of the Jihadi from popular cinema.  Mind you, the Jihadi was only gone from 2002-2007, and returned with a vengeance in that Islamophobic Orientalist schlockfest The Kingdom (2007).(If you can stand to stomach it, read the gushing NYTimes.com review here. ) It’s worth noting that during the Jihadi-free cinematic lull, films that offered realistic, three-dimensional portrayals of Arab and Muslim characters were also absent. The U.S. military occupation of countries throughout the Middle East, the immediate cause of so much death and despair, is rarely portrayed in film as anything but fundamentally benign by Hollywood. In the absence of Arab Bad Guys in movies, television shows like 24 helped American viewing audiences fill their Jihadi voids weekly.  With regard to depictions of Arabs and Muslims, it’s obvious that Hollywood couldn’t say something nice, so it chose not to say anything at all.  In light of the very real damage that these false, negative and conflated stereotypes of Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners do to these groups in real life, Hollywood’s silence is disturbingly eloquent.

(Photos courtesy of NYTIMES.com, unrealitymag.com, IMDB.com, e-Cahiers du Cinema.com, Empire Online.com Middle East Americas.com and Allez Savoir.com)

*The term “jihadi” or “jihadist”, like ”Mohammedean” and “Shi’ite”,  appears to be  an erroneous term created by mainstream  (non-Arabic speaking) media to refer to a mujahid, the proper word for an individual who engages in jihad  (plural: mujahideen). The word “jihadi/jihadist” is often used within the media to describe mujahideen, a word that is more clearly associated in Western media specifically with Afghanistan.  It must also be noted that the notion of jihad has been deliberately twisted to equate it with extremism and violence by Western media.