The new movie "The Kingdom" is a setback for efforts to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world.
Director Peter Berg vowed that he was "determined to avoid stereotypes." But he didn't live up to his vow. Instead, he offers us a $70 million jingoistic Rambo-in-Arabia thriller.
The opening frames of "The Kingdom" focus on American oil company workers and their families as they play a softball game at the "Rahman Compound." Suddenly, Saudi terrorists attack. They proceed to kill more than 100 Americans — primarily women, teenagers and children who are either mowed down or blown to pieces. An additional 200 Americans are seriously wounded.
"All glory to Allah" and "Allah will give us victory," declare the terrorists.
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During the attack, the Saudi ringleader's son watches the slaughter approvingly. Cut to the United States, to the son of FBI agent Jamie Foxx (Ronald Fleury). The boy tells his father: "There are a lot of bad people out there."
Says Fleury, "Yeah, but you're not one of them."
This scene — an Arab child giving a thumbs up to terror, while an American kid denounces it — implies that Arab kids may look innocent but they, too, are "bad people." The film's State Department officials are also stereotyped.
They are pro-Arab wimps, trying to deny FBI investigators the right to investigate the crime and put their "boots on Saudi soil." One FBI agent describes Saudi Arabia as being "a bit like Mars." In fact, Berg's Saudi Arabia is much worse than Mars. Saudi Arabia appears as a sinister desert land filled with evil machine-gun-toting Arabs lurking around each and every corner, waiting in the shadows to kill Americans.
The audience is led to believe that we had better kill them — even women and children — quick, before they kill us.
Yes, Berg does have the agents meet two "good" Saudis: Col.
Ghazi (Ashraf Barhoum) and Sgt. Haytham (Ali Suliman); they help Fleury investigate the horrific attack. Says Ghazi: "When we catch the men who murdered those people, I want to kill them." But this is mere tokenism on Berg's part.
He could have had Ghazi or Haytham discuss with Fleury how terrorism adversely affects all people, and that Americans and Arabs should work in unison to protect the innocent.
He could have quoted the Saudi grand mufti, who actually said four days after 9/11: "Hijacking planes, terrorizing innocent people and shedding blood constitute a form of injustice that cannot be tolerated by Islam, which views them as gross crimes and sinful acts." He could have quoted Crown Prince Abdullah: "Terrorists are criminals and murderers with total disregard for any Islamic and human values or decency." Instead, he chose to use the broadest, bloodiest brush possible.
While the film turned me off, I know it turned some people on. When I watched it, a few teenagers cheered each and every time Saudis were shot dead in their tracks. I stopped counting after 35 Saudi bodies hit the sand.
Echoing the opening scene, the movie's final frames imply that the mastermind's innocent-looking grandchild is an up-and-coming terrorist. The boy is asked: "What did your grandfather tell you before he died?" He whispers, "We're going to kill them all." The camera presents an extreme close-up of the boy's threatening eyes.
This scene only makes it more likely that some Western viewers will fail to mourn the deaths of innocent Arab children, those who are gunned down or blown up in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and elsewhere.
I also wonder about the impact "The Kingdom" will have on our servicemen and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will it make them more likely to engage in wanton violence against civilians? And I wonder how viewers in the Middle East will react to "The Kingdom." Will they cheer, as the American teens did, when Arab bodies drop in the sand? Will this film help bring them any closer to us, or us closer to them? I doubt it.
In a time that calls for cultural understanding, we get crude antagonism.
In a time that calls for nuance and clarity, we get dangerous simplifications and gross distortions.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Jack Shaheen is author of "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People." The writer wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703; e-mail: email@example.com; Web site: www.progressive.org.
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