‘The Dictator’ Racial Stereotypes Trouble Arab-Americans

Sacha Baron Cohen's new comedy "The Dictator" may mean well, but many wonder why the cast is devoid of Arabs

Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator” opens in theaters at midnight on Tuesday, but the film already has some Arab-Americans complaining about its damaging portrayal of Arabs.

Baron Cohen plays General Aladeen, a North African dictator who jokes about murder and repression.

While Baron Cohen’s shtick may be in good fun, some Arab groups and experts aren’t in on the joke, believing the comedian has perpetuated negative stereotypes that go back to the early days of Hollywood.

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“Arabs are being ridiculed again and again and again,” Jack Shaheen, author of “Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11,” told TheWrap. “It’s unending and has been going on for nearly a century. [Baron Cohen] just advances the idea that it’s perfectly acceptable to ridicule Arabs in film.”

Shaheen has written extensively on the depiction of Arabs in Hollywood and the fact that movies tend to depict them as nefarious, dirty or moronic. In his book, “Reel Arabs,” he chronicles hundreds of movies with such portrayals.

Particularly troubling to the author and professor in this instance is the timing. Baron Cohen is mocking the idea of a dictator while similar leaders are slaughtering civilians on the other side of the globe.

Shaheen is not the first person to criticize “The Dictator” for its depiction of Arabs.

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Nadia Tonova, the director of the National Network for Arab American Communities, objected in February when Baron Cohen strode down the Oscar red carpet in character, spilling ashes on Ryan Seacrest.

At the time she wrote that Arabs are one of just a few cultures that “Hollywood still exploits with impunity,” being portrayed as “terrorists, dictators, sheikhs, oil tycoons or Bedouins.”

Over the past couple of months, the chorus has grown.

Nadine Labaki, a Lebanese director, told NPR this week that Baron Cohen did not make fun of Arabs “with respect.”

Dean Obeidallah, a comedian and TV commentator, wrote a column for CNN comparing Baron Cohen’s performance to the use of blackface.

And there’s the rub. While a comedian like Obeidallah believes most everything is fair game for comedy, there is a sense that Hollywood picks on Arabs in particular.

Shaheen wondered whether Baron Cohen could have worn black face, or gotten a spray tan and mimicked a South American dictator.

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“Would a studio make a film like that,” he asked. “If I’m in Vegas with you, I’ll bet the house the answer is no.”

Yet while “The Dictator” is seen as harmful to Arab-Americans, that doesn’t mean outrage is the answer.

“If we make a big deal out of every time some movie does something that is slightly racist or sexist, you devote yourself entirely to doing that,” Omar Baddar, New Media Coordinator for the Arab American Institute, told TheWrap.

He argued that there was a double standard — that an anti-Jewish stereotype would never pass muster in Hollywood. However, he said the way of combating any of these negative stereotypes is through education and substantive debate rather than outrage.

TheWrap spoke with Paramount about these various points, but the studio declined to comment on the depiction of Arabs in the film.

It's not just the content of "The Dictator" that has drawn the ire of the Arab-American community. It's the cast and crew.

Most troubling to some of these observers is not that Arabs are portrayed negatively but that they were not cast in the film.

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"My big issue is Hollywood having people who are not Arab and not Indian play us — the white-washing in Hollywood," Obeidallah told TheWrap. "They mock us for a profit and make a lot of money so at least have us as part of creative process.”

This isn't necessarily about improving the perception of Arabs — though that would help too. Obeidallah stressed that Hollywood could also do a better job of mocking Arabs if it used Arab writers and actors.

In fact, he is rooting for the film to do well so that it would open the door for similar comedies. He will see it with his girlfriend later this week.

“I hope it’s a big hit,” he told TheWrap. “I don’t want to boycott; I don’t want an apology.”

As for Shaheen, he said he hoped one day to get coffee with Baron Cohen.

“He seems like a nice guy,” Shaheen said. “Someone like that is in a position to help eradicate the stereotype instead of enforcing or escalating it.”