The Dictator: A Critique

written by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), with contributions made by Reem Al Harmi

Throughout history Hollywood has negatively portrayed every ethnic group, focusing on fears and generalizations that sell movies and ignite American stereotypes. Known for his style of mocking movie themes, Sacha Baron Cohen, is continuing to build his legacy and stay true to form through his new movie “The Dictator.” This time, Cohen has targeted Arabs. Surprised? Not really. Expected? Yes.

With anti-Arab sentiment at an all-time high, Hollywood has focused its efforts on the Arab community. As Jack Shaheen has stated, Arabs have notoriously been depicted as bombers, billionaires, or belly dancers – the three Bs. The categories were created pre-9/11. Over time, the portrayal of Arabs has not changed in the media and the movie industry. The same images exist – the same wealthy Arab drenched in gold, the terrorist Muslim/Arab willing to kill “infidels” through “jihad,” and the sexually objectified woman who is at the mercy of her controlling male counterpart.

After viewing “The Dictator,” the movie’s offensiveness was not surprising. It was full of negative stereotypes meant to illicit laughter. For example, the fictional North African Republic of Wadiya was symbolized by crescents and swords. The purpose is clear – the symbols are meant to represent Islam and violence. In another scene, while on a flight, the movie’s main character, General Haffaz Aladeen, speaks his version of Arabic and says only a few words in English, such as Empire State, Statue of Liberty, and 9/11. This particular scene incites and condones the fears that many Americans have today.

Another telling scene of the movie depicts Aladeen discussing the birth of a baby girl. Upon the delivery of the child, he inquired as to where she could be thrown away by asking “where is the trash?” Previously he had asked a woman if she was having a boy or an abortion. The movie was full of these types of scenes that exaggerate popular negative stereotypes of Arab culture. From scenes cloaked with sexist remarks to jokes about beheading, Cohen held nothing back.

Cohen has stated that the purpose of his characters in movies is to enlighten those who watch his films- - to show just how comical and unreasonable the fears and misconceptions are. Unfortunately most viewers find movies such as “The Dictator” informational, rather than understanding them as movies that make light of popular misconceptions. Considering that Arabs around the world are fighting and dying for basic freedoms, this movie in the wake of the Arab Spring seems extremely inappropriate.

From airports to immigration stops, Arab and Muslim Americans are affected daily by such stereotypes. Using racism to make movies should not be tolerated, regardless of its stated purpose. Racial profiling is pervasive throughout the United States. “The Dictator” makes light of the actual day to day affects this racism has had on the Arab-American community. The movie perpetuates the already anti-Arab and anti-Muslim culture that has saturated America for over a decade. As Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment continues to be a very serious and real problem for the Arab and Muslim American communities, making light of the stereotypes and perpetuating the racist beliefs is improper and unacceptable.