Since the birth of America many people have come here with the “American Dream,” the promise that through hard work and determination you can achieve prosperity. It is what this country was built on, but does anyone ever get this?
Maybe, if you’re White, possibly if you’re Black, chances are slim if you’re Latino, and definitely not if you’re Middle Eastern. For many, the “American Dream” is a myth, a story created a long time ago to give people hope.
In 2006, Paul Weitz wrote and directed a film titled “American Dreamz.” It was a satire on American pop culture and politics. The film is full of stereotypes, including a few Arab terrorists who are as one dimensional as there precious counterparts in movies.
In a film that mocks the American public and ridicules there way of life one Arab character is able to break the mold and become the only one in the entire movie worth caring about.
“American Dreamz” tells you everything you need to know in its tagline, “Imagine a country where the President never reads the newspaper, where the government goes to war for all the wrong reasons, and more people vote for a pop idol than their next President.”
Sound like any place you know? The film centers around an American Idol type singing contest called “American Dreamz” hosted by a surly British man. Two characters are focused on mainly, Sally Kendoo, your bubbly girl next door from Ohio, and Omer, an Arab sleeper cell sent to live with his cousins in Orange County.
Sally wants to be famous, and after getting on the show dumps her boyfriend. He can’t imagine living without her so he joins the army to win her back. On his first day in Iraq he is shot in the arm and sent home where, after Sally realizes what great publicity it will be, gets back together with her.
Meanwhile, the President of the US has just been reelected to office and has started reading the news. He shuts himself up in his bedroom for a few weeks and word spreads that he is having a nervous breakdown. In order to gain popularity his vice president arranges some public appearances including guest judge on the finale of “American Dreamz”.
This film is clearly a commentary of pop culture. It is about the people we elect to hold office, and the people we idolize on TV. It is about how we put more decision into who’s the best mediocre singer than in international relations.
And of course what film on 21st century society wouldn’t be complete without a few terrorists. It isn’t so much a satire as it is a retelling of things we already now.
Everyone in the movie is a stereotype. That’s the wrong word…maybe not stereotype so much as a caricature of popular media figures. The Arabs also fall into this generalization. They are portrayed the same way they always are. They are simplified to one dimensional terrorists.
Jack Shaheen, in his book “Reel Bad Arabs”, lists what filmmakers need to film a convincing Middle Easterner. He calls it an “Arab kit” or “instant Ali Baba kit.” Some of these things are: curved daggers, dark robes, black beards, and exaggerated noses.
Tim Semmerling argues that these portrayals are not of Arabs but are actually of the filmmakers in his book ‘Evil’ Arabs in American Popular Film. He writes, “Our filmic villains are narrative tools used for self-presentation and self-identity to enhance our own stature, our own meaning, and our own self-esteem in times of our own diffidence.” In other words, they are not depictions of Arabs so much as our projection of what/ who an Arab is.
In “American Dreamz” we are given one character to empathize with, Omer. When we first meet Omer he is in the desert at a terrorist training camp. We know this because at the bottom of the screen is the label “Terrorist Camp, Afghan-Pakistan Border.”
We see a group of men covered from head to toe in black robes going through training maneuvers such as crossing monkey bars and target practice on a cardboard cut-out of the President. One man keeps falling, tripping, and jamming his gun. This is Omer. Another Arab we can laugh at, right?
After a hard day of training what does he do? Goes to his tent, pulls out his Donny and Marie record player and singing and dancing to some good old show tunes. A friend of his bursts into the tent and tells him to turn it down before the “slit his throat.” (How typical) But good news, Omer has been chosen to be sent to California as a sleeper cell. “When will I be contacted,” Omer asks. His friend shrugs, walks out, and then mumbles under his breath, “Never.”
Not only does this scene serve to enforce the stereotype and propel the plot but also give a back-story to Omer. Within the scene we also learn why Omer joined the terrorist movement, to avenge his mother. From conversation it comes out that Omer’s mother, who gave him his love of music, was killed during an American bombing.
As viewers we are able to see Omer as human and we have sympathy for him, something we aren’t usually allowed to do with Arab characters.
Once Omer leaves the camp he is sent to live with his wealthy cousins, the Riza’s, who live in Orange County, CA. They are a completely Westernized Mid-Eastern family. The Riza’s live in a mansion which they refer to as “this tiny old thing,” wear name brand clothing, and use phrases like “party like rock stars.”
The teen’s in the family, Iqbal and Shazzy, do nothing but shop on the weekends and are upset when Omer won’t let them spend money on them. When we meet the Riza’s we classify them as others because of their race. Once we get to know them we identify them as rich Californians. We designate them by class over ethnicity.
With the Riza’s Omer becomes even more human to us. He is humble, especially compared to Iqbal and Shazzy, he enjoys the luxurious lifestyle, and he falls in love with Iqbal’s practice stage in the basement. Omer goes downstairs to sing and dance his heart out; it is here where the producers of “American Dreamz” find him.
Once Omer gets onto the show he is contacted and told that he is going to kill the president on the finale of the show. As soon as we see Omer without looking at his race we are knocked over the heads with more Arab stereotypes.
Agha Babur, a terrorist, goes to tell Omer his mission. Omer has trepidation about the entire situation but Babur reassures him, “folks don’t call me the torturer because I don’t like to torture people.” (How cliché) On the show Omer is adored. He even gets his own slogan, “You’ve been Omarized.”
America embraces him and his otherness. He is seen as shy and unthreatening which allows people to let him in, similar to Michael Jordan and Jackie Robinson. He’s just white enough to be loved.
After Omer performs on the show and begins to make friends with all of the other contestants he has doubts about his assignment.
He asks himself very important questions (that feel completely out of place in a comedy) like, “Are Americans to blame fore America,” “How can a country full of so many nice people do so much harm in the world,” and “Does causing suffering end your own?” These preponderances add depth and character to Omer.
He is reminded by Babur that he is only a plaything to them and something that they can use to “forget about the terror they’ve inflicted” but Omer does not believe the propaganda anymore and has become his own person.
The role of Arabs on film is limited to terrorists and belly dances. It is as stifling today as is was fifty years ago. Few Middle Eastern protagonists live to today’s cinema landscape, and you may find them the strangest places.
You don’t walk into “American Dreamz” expecting to relate most to the reformed terrorist, but you do. In a movie full of clichés and stereotypes only one character is given a chance to develop and show range. Omer may not go down in cinematic history as a “good” Arab, but he is anything but an “evil” one.