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"The Dictator," More Slapdash Comedy Than Satire

Subtitle: 
All the usual idiotic anti-Arab/Muslim stereotypes are the jokes du jour
By Munira Syeda


The Dictator
is nothing more than silly comedy with crude sexual content that regurgitates century old anti-Muslim depictions.

In my community advocate role of liaising with the entertainment industry, I attended an advanced screening of the new Sasha Baron Cohen film earlier in the week.

Afterward, I was glad I saved myself 12 bucks and a trip to the theater.

International poster for "The Dictator"International poster for "The Dictator"Following the historic Arab spring, Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame makes a film about the ever-despised Middle Eastern dictators. Cohen misses an opportunity to expose these tyrants by generously incorporating anti-Muslim stereotypes into the script. In scene after scene, Arab culture is presented as uncivilized, violence-prone and denigrating toward women; and the Arab people are portrayed as camel-jockeys and Jew haters. For example:

• When General Aladeen (Cohen) is at a restaurant filled with Wadiyan dissidents (people who should have been executed per Aladeen's orders but got away and escaped to the U.S.), he doesn't want to share his true identity and causes suspicion, in turn, prompting people at the restaurant to take out knives and swords to threaten him.

• Aladeen is seen playing a first-person-shooter video game called "Munich Olympics." In the game, he knocks on the door marked "Israeli Olympic Team." When a creature in a yarmulke answers the door with "Shalom" Aladeen shoots him.

• Aladeen plays a doctor in the grocery store's backroom, where he announces after delivering the baby: "Bad news, it's a girl." Holding her, he looks around, and asks, "Where is the trash can?"

An equal opportunity low-brow, Cohen also bashes Asians and feminists, and disrespects a dead body in his film. But he largely depends on simplistic and shallow anti-Muslim and anti-Arab depictions (rivaled only by the crude sexual imagery), to sell his latest entertainment product to audiences.

Prior to the film's release, The Dictator scored a 67 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (The Hunger Games scored 84 percent in comparison).

Now, I understand...some in Hollywood go straight for shock value. Others rely on the tired ethnic stereotypes for material. In The Dictator, Cohen depends on both (one film reviewer called him the "antithesis" of Charlie Chaplin).

But, isn't it possible to be entertaining, humorous and intelligent all at the same time? We appreciate thought-provoking, envelope-pushing entertainment; Muslim and Arab communities are not above that. Besides, as everyone from the Middle East knows, we can be very funny people. Just ask the Egyptians.

As the widely respected Katie Couric said, "The media can be an instrument of change: it can maintain the status quo and reflect the views of the society or it can, hopefully, awaken people and change minds." I agree 100 percent.

However, kindly spare us the racist stereotypes and the absurd 9/11 jokes (my community will be quick to point out that we were doubly attacked on 9/11, first as Americans, and second when we suffered considerable backlash as American Muslims).

I'm not looking to a Brit to make American Muslims and Arabs look more attractive on U.S. screens. An emerging crop of Muslim writers, comedians and filmmakers has been tackling that challenge in recent years, and quite impressively.

Instead, I aim to challenge writers and directors wishing to incorporate Muslim/Arab images into their material. I want to help get their creative juices flowing by providing access to more stories, more details, more background information. In an effort to be helpful, here are some examples of success on the tube.

True creativity is difficult precisely because it requires discarding the craving for quick box office hits and adding credits to one's name in favor of intelligent, imaginative content.

In the case of two great recent films The Help and Avatar (yes, different genre but the principle applies here nonetheless), such conviction paid off with huge dividends.

So, whether you head for the theater, wait for your DVD to arrive in the mail, or decide to opt for something else entirely is your decision.

But, I would like to hear from you. What are your thoughts on The Dictator? (Click "Add new  comment" below)

 


Munira Syeda is the Communications Manager at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) office in Orange County. This  review first appeared in the Huffington Post and is republished here by arrangement with the author.