Racialicious Review: The Citizen

Khaled Nabawy in a scene from "The Citizen"

Khaled Nabawy in a scene from “The Citizen”

By Guest Contributor Nour Soubani

The recent independent film, The Citizen, raises a number of important questions related to identity, belonging, and representation that are relevant and challenging to many American communities at large today.

Ibrahim, a middle-aged Lebanese man, wakes up one day and actualizes his dream: he wins a ticket from the Green Card Lottery to come to America. He lands in New York on September 10th, 2001, and befriends Diane, an attractive white American woman who is just escaping an abusive relationship. The next fateful morning is the September 11th attack, and the rest of the movie follows Ibrahim’s experience as an Arab Muslim in a post-9/11 New York City, the relationships he builds with Diane and those who both support and villainize him, and his interactions with the law.

 Ibrahim, although not a legal citizen, is painted as the ideal American: He helps the homeless, works an honest job, and intervenes at a crime scene to save a man’s life. Although he looks distinctly Arab, and some suspicion is raised that he is related to one of the hijackers, there is a clear assertion throughout the movie that Ibrahim is completely disconnected from the evil terrorists who attacked the United States, and from the Middle East as a whole. In fact, multiple times throughout the film he expresses how grateful he is to leave Lebanon, to come to America and pursue “the American Dream”, and to leave behind his penniless and unsuccessful life. While the protagonist’s morals and values are virtuous—this was enough to make the audience fall in love with him—his character functions with a subtle undertone that reinforces a binaric hierarchy between the U.S. and the rest, one that inevitably places America at the top. Ibrahim comes to the United States to make something of himself; the storyline implies that this was inherently not possible where he came from, nor were any efforts to do so valued and encouraged. He is portrayed as an exception to the rule—a respectable, mannered, responsible and hardworking individual, who, with these admirable, individualist traits, clearly does not belong in the Arab world. The character of Ibrahim—while well-intentioned—in fact plays into Orientalist notions that otherize the Middle East, creating an unknown, inferior entity out of it that inherently does not hold the same purely “American” values that cause Ibrahim to succeed.

 

To be fair, not everything in Amreeka is rosy for Ibrahim; he faces trials in his newfound homeland almost immediately.  In his first few days in the country, he is picked up by FBI agents and taken into custody for six months to be questioned about the whereabouts of his cousin, a suspect in the 9/11 attacks. When his name is cleared, Ibrahim is determined to continue his pursuit of the American Dream, but with his visibly Muslim-perceived name and appearance, he is unable to find a job in the car industry at first, and resorts to working at his friend Mo’s convenience store. But soon, Mo and the store are victims of a robbery. Then, Ibrahim is the victim of a violent assault in the streets of New York around Christmas time, where he was trying to protect a Jewish man and his girlfriend celebrating Hanukah. Consistently and without fail, Ibrahim finds support and help in his new, accepting, helpful, and well-meaning white American friends. From the very beginning, Diane is at his side, giving him a place to stay, and even finding him the job with Mo. After he rescues Josh, the man he saved from a mugging, Ibrahim is given his dream job in Josh’s family’s car dealership. Finally, when the climax of the movie arrives with a notice for Ibrahim’s deportation, he finds a charitable white lawyer who defends him for no cost. All of these people make up a network of support to see him through the trial. Diane, Josh, the lawyer, and the group of Americans who suddenly show up and stand outside the courthouse to protest Ibrahim’s deportation (as if this is characteristic of such situations) are all placed in stark contrast to the Americans anomalies: the FBI interrogators who roughly accuse him of being connected to the 9/11 attacks, the prosecutor who wrongly accuses Ibrahim of terrorism, and the criminals who rob Mo’s store. In addition to perpetuating a white benevolence that is in its roots imperialist, the result is a portrayal of magnanimity as a white American norm, with profiling, racism, and criminality standing on the sidelines as shameful outliers.  When Ibrahim opens his notice of deportation, he expresses to Diane his frustration that “you people don’t want me here”. She becomes angry, and asks him if he means the people who gave him a place to stay, found him a job, and offered friendship. Not only is almost every white person Ibrahim comes across genuine and caring, but they support Ibrahim because they see him as separate from his terrorist counterparts, and for that, Ibrahim should be eternally grateful and compliant at any bad apple misfortunes that may come about.

 

“The Citizen” touches on issues of race too, though without critically addressing it. At one point in the film, Ibrahim befriends a homeless Black man, treats him to a slice of pizza, and asks him how he came to be in this predicament—homeless, jobless, without a family. The man’s explanation is that he used to have a well-paying job as a bookkeeper, but he drank too much, gambled too much, and eventually lost everything. Ibrahim’s prescriptive advice was again that this is America, and everyone can make something of themselves, if only they are determined. By the end of the movie, the man has a job and is, as the American saying goes, pulling himself up by the bootstraps.  It reads like a happy ending, but it is shockingly avoidant. There is no mention or hint of the institutionalized racism and class oppression that systematically target and debase poor and Black communities. This man is homeless by his own bad habits and lack of motivation in a setting where all conditions are otherwise favorable; while this may be true for a fictional character, it is certainly is not representative of the complexities of resource distribution and racial marginalization characteristic of America.

 

 

The film, “The Citizen” may not outwardly concede to the images of violence, terrorism, and barbarism that characterize the Arab world in popular culture and media representations. However, through its character and plot development, it does implicitly set up barriers of inferiority between Muslims and Arabs, and white American society, when what we really need in order to create allyhood and understanding, is a critical approach to these identities.  

The recent independent film, “The Citizen”, raises a number of important questions related to
identity, belonging, and representation that are relevant and challenging to many American
communities at large today.
Ibrahim, a middle-aged Lebanese man, wakes up one day and actualizes his dream: he wins a
ticket from the Green Card Lottery to come to America. He lands in New York on September 10th,
2001, and befriends Diane, an attractive white American woman who is just escaping an abusive
relationship. The next fateful morning is the September 11th attack, and the rest of the movie
follows Ibrahim’s experience as an Arab Muslim in a post-9/11 New York City, the relationships
he builds with Diane and those who both support and villainize him, and his interactions with the
law.
Ibrahim, although not a legal citizen, is painted as the ideal American: He helps the homeless,
works an honest job, and intervenes at a crime scene to save a man’s life. Although he looks
distinctly Arab, and some suspicion is raised that he is related to one of the hijackers, there is
a clear assertion throughout the movie that Ibrahim is completely disconnected from the evil
terrorists who attacked the United States, and from the Middle East as a whole. In fact, multiple
times throughout the film he expresses how grateful he is to leave Lebanon, to come to America
and pursue “the American Dream”, and to leave behind his penniless and unsuccessful life. While
the protagonist’s morals and values are virtuous—this was enough to make the audience fall in
love with him—his character functions with a subtle undertone that reinforces a binaric hierarchy
between the U.S. and the rest, one that inevitably places America at the top. Ibrahim comes to
the United States to make something of himself; the storyline implies that this was inherently
not possible where he came from, nor were any efforts to do so valued and encouraged. He is
portrayed as an exception to the rule—a respectable, mannered, responsible and hardworking
individual, who, with these admirable, individualist traits, clearly does not belong in the Arab
world. The character of Ibrahim—while well-intentioned—in fact plays into Orientalist notions
that otherize the Middle East, creating an unknown, inferior entity out of it that inherently does
not hold the same purely “American” values that cause Ibrahim to succeed.
To be fair, not everything in Amreeka is rosy for Ibrahim; he faces trials in his newfound
homeland almost immediately. In his first few days in the country, he is picked up by FBI agents
and taken into custody for six months to be questioned about the whereabouts of his cousin, a
suspect in the 9/11 attacks. When his name is cleared, Ibrahim is determined to continue his
pursuit of the American Dream, but with his visibly Muslim-perceived name and appearance,
he is unable to find a job in the car industry at first, and resorts to working at his friend Mo’s
convenience store. But soon, Mo and the store are victims of a robbery. Then, Ibrahim is the
victim of a violent assault in the streets of New York around Christmas time, where he was trying
to protect a Jewish man and his girlfriend celebrating Hanukah. Consistently and without fail,
Ibrahim finds support and help in his new, accepting, helpful, and well-meaning white American
friends. From the very beginning, Diane is at his side, giving him a place to stay, and even finding
him the job with Mo. After he rescues Josh, the man he saved from a mugging, Ibrahim is given
his dream job in Josh’s family’s car dealership. Finally, when the climax of the movie arrives with
a notice for Ibrahim’s deportation, he finds a charitable white lawyer who defends him for no
cost. All of these people make up a network of support to see him through the trial. Diane, Josh,
the lawyer, and the group of Americans who suddenly show up and stand outside the courthouse
to protest Ibrahim’s deportation (as if this is characteristic of such situations) are all placed in
stark contrast to the Americans anomalies: the FBI interrogators who roughly accuse him of being
connected to the 9/11 attacks, the prosecutor who wrongly accuses Ibrahim of terrorism, and the
criminals who rob Mo’s store. In addition to perpetuating a white benevolence that is in its roots
imperialist, the result is a portrayal of magnanimity as a white American norm, with profiling,
racism, and criminality standing on the sidelines as shameful outliers. When Ibrahim opens his
notice of deportation, he expresses to Diane his frustration that “you people don’t want me here”.
She becomes angry, and asks him if he means the people who gave him a place to stay, found
him a job, and offered friendship. Not only is almost every white person Ibrahim comes across
genuine and caring, but they support Ibrahim because they see him as separate from his terrorist
counterparts, and for that, Ibrahim should be eternally grateful and compliant at any bad apple
misfortunes that may come about.
“The Citizen” touches on issues of race too, though without critically addressing it. At one point
in the film, Ibrahim befriends a homeless Black man, treats him to a slice of pizza, and asks
him how he came to be in this predicament—homeless, jobless, without a family. The man’s
explanation is that he used to have a well-paying job as a bookkeeper, but he drank too much,
gambled too much, and eventually lost everything. Ibrahim’s prescriptive advice was again that
this is America, and everyone can make something of themselves, if only they are determined.
By the end of the movie, the man has a job and is, as the American saying goes, pulling himself
up by the bootstraps. It reads like a happy ending, but it is shockingly avoidant. There is no
mention or hint of the institutionalized racism and class oppression that systematically target
and debase poor and Black communities. This man is homeless by his own bad habits and lack of
motivation in a setting where all conditions are otherwise favorable; while this may be true for a
fictional character, it is certainly is not representative of the complexities of resource distribution
and racial marginalization characteristic of America.
The film, “The Citizen” may not outwardly concede to the images of violence, terrorism, and
barbarism that characterize the Arab world in popular culture and media representations.
However, through its character and plot development, it does implicitly set up barriers of
inferiority between Muslims and Arabs, and white American society, when what we really need in
order to create allyhood and understanding, is a critical approach to these identities.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Great analysis, thanks for doing it! I’d be interested in watching this film just to observe all the problems you mention about it here. Again thank!