If you go looking for bigotry and prejudices about Arabs and Muslims at the theaters you may not have to look further than “The Dictator”, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s newest satiric installment. Though premised on a mash up of popular dictators from around the world channeled into a single non-Arab-yet-very-Arab-dictator, the movie promotes a far more sinister concept than authoritarian dictatorships, or flaming Islamophobia- DEMOCARCAY- so you might be disappointed in finding out that the comedy is no deeper than the commercials and theatric media junkets behind it.
Unlike Aasif Mandvi
or Dean Obideallah
, or the many American Muslims steaming at the prospect of another Hollywood creation undermining the image of Islam or Muslims, I looked forward to the movie. What I found was not so much a movie disparaging Arabs and Muslims, but rather a skillful political satire, albeit done in a fairly absurd, predictably lewd and raunchy way. The comedy was only skin deep.
Political satire is Sacha’s comedic tool, and satire is using irony to portray people, culture and politics in a ridiculous fashion, therefore alienating us from the object of humor. What’s ironic is that I felt empathy for the Dictator as he grew from a lonely little boy with Daddy issues into a Mubarakesque democratically elected prime minister (with an astounding 99.9% of the votes- which pretty much gives away the entire movie).
I reject Dean and Assif’s contention that The Dictator is just an active “brownface ministerial” undertaking. Their point being that Muslims and Arabs best know how to portray the stereotypes incorporated into films like The Dictator. That argument would mean that law enforcement should let Muslims do the counter terrorism investigations because American Muslims are best at creating terrorism plots. Neither of these arguments work for me because they are premised on this narrow contention that itself is stereotypical of a minority community’s inability to gain or wield social and political power.
On the other end of the spectrum is the American Muslim pre-emptive outrage as expressed in online petitions and ambivalent social media discussions around the movie. One such petition making the rounds reads “It promotes negative stereotypes of Arab culture as well as places a prejudice against Islam and Muslims. This Film may initially seem to merely poke fun at the Authoritarian regimes so often found in the Middle East, however what it does not show is the reality and views held by this regions population.” The petition goes on to say that the movie is a satire making profit by promoting ignorant and stereotypical views about Islam and Arabs.
What Dean and the petition got right was that they haven’t seen the movie, instead they jumped to conclusions. Dean’s being a very sad short sighted, maybe misguided, conclusion about the roles minority’s should play in Hollywood and the petitions author’s not understanding or appreciating the social utility of satire. Rather than talk about something you haven’t seen, it makes more sense to go watch it, unless of coarse you plan on boycotting it out of moral obligation. But than don’t talk about the movie like you know what it is because you’ve been watching the trailers, I mean what happened to not judging a book by its cover?
I had the chance to watch the movie, there were no points at which Islam or Muslim could be attached directly to the characters or to Waadiya, the fictional dictatorship of General Aladeen. The mismash of cultures- Indian, Sikh, Arab, Persian with Russian Imperial architectural forms made the whole thing a smorgasbord focused on the lifestyle of General Aladeen, the dictator. Ofcoarse people watching it will think the language being spoken is Arabic, but honestly it sounded more like Hebrew to me. People will in effect walk away coming in with all the same stereotypes they had about Arabs and Muslims, except satire does a funny thing to someone willing to sit through it.Satire provides the keenest insight into society’s collective psyche, making it an effective tool to understand challenging and often complex situations. It is no surprise than that the most poignant moment of the film comes at the somewhat anti-climatic speech by Sacha’s Dictator character suggesting what he has discovered about democracy in his experience and interactions with people in New York City, its “a hairy, smelly” thing which requires “listening to every stupid opinion.” In the Aladeen’s words “Democracy is flawed and it’s not perfect.”
In fact in Aladeen’s big speech, Sacha outlines the steps that America had taken toward authoritarian dictatorship – detaining political prisoners without trial, putting the media in the hands of one man, rigged elections, filling up our prisons with one particular race – and in the most brilliant social commentary found in the film Sacha suggests that “America is a country built by Blacks and owned by the Chinese.”
I wouldn’t encourage you to go watch the movie, because, honestly, its not that funny
. You probably should just go watch one of the numerous summer blockbusters coming out than sit through The Dictator. On the issue of “whitewashing” Hollywood, I agree its something that is critical to examine and discuss, however, the issue is what purpose it serves. I find that Hasan Minhaj
, who also happens to be a comedian, had a take that made much better sense- lets move past these stereotypical roles and actually get South Asian and Arab (minority actors in general) roles that are main stream. In fact I write about typecasting, in particular with Disney’s show Jessie and the character Ravi
, so I am not saying that the whole thing is crying wolf, I just think its misplaced criticism.