14 Fair Depictions of Muslims in Film and Television5
14 Fair Depictions of Muslims in Film and Television
Many would agree that Muslims have long been one of the more demonized groups in American film and television. While some may think that these negative representations only occurred after 9/11, this is actually not the case; it is difficult to find any Muslim television or film character that is not fraught with stereotypes. However, some filmmakers have made a conscious effort to portray Muslims in a fair or even positive manner. From Lion in the Desert to “Lost,” these works manage to break through the typical stereotypes and clichés and offer a more complex view. Similarly, our own original series, “Living with the Infidels,” takes a common Muslim stereotype and turns it on its head. Produced with the full blessing of a senior member of the Muslim Council, the satirical series follows a sub-cell of jihadists operating in London who question their mission as they begin to enjoy living in the West. In honor of all those filmmakers out there brave enough to present racially sophisticated stories, here’s a look at 14 fair depictions of Muslims in film and television.
1. Lion of the Desert (1981)
Anthony Quinn’s portrayal of Omar Mukhtar, who led the guerrilla struggle against the Italian fascist occupation of Libya, has been hailed as one of the most positive depictions of a Muslim historical figure in American film. While Mukhtar is mostly known for the resourceful ways in which he outsmarted his enemies, the film also displays his humanistic side by emphasizing Mukhtar’s belief in freedom and strong religious faith. Additionally, the movie shows Mukhtar abstaining from cruel treatment of his Italian prisoners as a result of his Islamic beliefs.
2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Perhaps one of the most well-known Muslim characters in contemporary American cinema is Azeem from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. In the film, Azeem, played by Morgan Freeman, is a dedicated and loyal friend to Robin Hood and eventually saves his life. Azeem was recognized by media critic, Jack Shaheen, who praised the character in his book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People, as “a heroic, learned, and noble man.”
3. The Suitors (1998)
The dark comedy The Suitors offers a tongue-in-cheek look at the stereotypes and prejudices held against Muslims living in the U.S. Set in New York, the film opens with a group of Iranians preparing for the wedding of a friend. As part of a traditional wedding ritual, the group slaughters a lamb. Unfortunately, the lamb’s blood accidentally seeps into the apartment below which prompts their neighbors to panic and call the police. As a result, a SWAT team kills one of the young men, Haji, and his wife must navigate an unfamiliar city on her own and face a number of unusual – and humorous – suitors.
4. The 13th Warrior (1999)
The 13th Warrior is considered by many as a breakthrough film for its trailblazing positive portrayal of an Arab Muslim. Antonio Banderas plays Ahmad ibn Fadlan, an Arab Muslim who befriends a group of Viking warriors after he’s expelled from his home city. The Vikings soon recruit Ahmad to fight alongside them as they attempt to defend a small village from a deadly supernatural creature. Although the film in general was panned by critics, many praised it for featuring a Muslim as its hero.
5. Three Kings (1999)
By emphasizing the danger that many Iraqis faced both during and after the first Gulf War, Three Kings provides a sympathetic view of those caught in the middle of a devastating conflict. Set in Baghdad, the film follows a group of American soldiers who come to realize that many Iraqis are murdering innocent civilians. The Americans eventually befriend the rebels that oppose Saddam Hussein’s troops and help them and their families escape to Iran. To ensure that the film had the support of the Arab and Muslim communities, the film’s producers offered pre-release screenings for a number of American Arab and Muslim groups.
6. Promises (2001)
Although a documentary, we decided to include Promises because of the film’s uniquely intelligent premise. Put simply, they asked the question, “what do children think of war?” They took the microphone and loud speaker away from politicians, terrorists, and army generals, and placed it in the hands of Palestinian and Israeli children. Both surprising and touching, the Oscar nominated film proved that when the playing field is leveled, people often open up and desire peace, not war.
7. “Lost” (2004-Present)
Ever since the hit television show “Lost” debuted in 2004, Sayid Jarrah, played by Naveen Andrews, has been a favorite among both critics and fans. Sayid, a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard, was part of an Anti-Terrorism squad and, just before crashing on the island, helped prevent a terrorist attack on Australia. After the crash, Sayid remains heroic as his survival and military skills help the other castaways survive.
8. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Taking place during the Crusades of the 12th century, Kingdom of Heaven seemed like a risky film to make because of its sensitive subject matter: the religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians. However, instead of demonizing one group over the other, the film offers a balanced perspective of the two religions by showing that each one contains both good and evil members. After attending an advanced screening, many American Muslim representatives said they hoped the film would increase interfaith dialogue.
9. “Sleeper Cell” (2005)
The short-lived series “Sleeper Cell” revolved around Darwyn Al-Sayeed, a Muslim American who is also an undercover FBI agent. The premise of the show is that Darwyn, played by Michael Ealy, must prevent a terrorist attack on Los Angeles by infiltrating a terrorist sleeper cell run by a Muslim extremist. The series defied stereotypes by not only featuring Darwyn, a practicing Muslim who works for the U.S. government, but other complex characters, as well. The cell is comprised of a variety of demographics and ethnicities, including a gay Muslim man – the first to be featured on American television.
10. Days of Glory (2006)
The French film Days of Glory has been praised for bringing attention to the marginalized groups that fought on behalf of the Allies during WWII. During the Nazi occupation, the French Army recruited soldiers from areas of North Africa, but then proceeded to treat them poorly while they served. Some of the soldiers discriminated against were Muslims and Arabs, and while the treatment that these groups endured was unfair, it eventually led to a policy change by the French government.
11. The Kite Runner (2007)
Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, The Kite Runner chronicles the friendship of two Afghan boys from different social statuses. The friendship endures over a span of years and occurs simultaneously with a number of traumatic events in Afghanistan such as the Soviet invasion and rise of the Taliban. While every main character in the film is Muslim, they are each represented with nuance and care. As author Khaled Hosseini explains, “These characters just happen to be Muslim. The concern of the film is not the role of Islam in the world; it’s a family story. Their struggles are things that people identify with.”
12. A Mighty Heart (2007)
One of the most surprising things about “A Mighty Heart” may be the balanced portrayal of Muslims that it offers. Based on the memoir of Mariane Pearl – whose husband, Daniel, an American journalist, was killed by Pakastanis – the film features Muslim characters that are both terrifying (the kidnappers and murderers of Daniel) and endearing (concerned Pakastani police officers and a feminist Muslim who befriends Mariane). While some in the Muslim community were worried that the movie would only reinforce negative stereotypes, there was a conscious effort on the part of the filmmakers not to do so. In addition to not depicting Pearl’s murder and decapitation, producer Brad Pitt said that the goal of the film was to “increase understanding between people of all faiths and portray the story and the people involved . . . without anger or judgment.”
13. New Muslim Cool (2009)
The 2009 documentary, New Muslim Cool not only challenges stereotypes against Muslims, but American urban youths as well. The film follows Hamza Perez, a drug dealer turned rapper and community activist living in Pittsburg. Along with his brother, Hamza forms a rap group named Mujahideen Team (M-Team) which strives to spread positive messages to other troubled youths by using the teachings of Islam. Additionally, Hamza, a former convict, also hopes to help lost prisoners turn their life around.
14. “Community” (2009)
The new NBC comedy, “Community,” features a Pakastani character named Abed Nadir. Played by comedian Danny Pudi, who is part of a comedy trio named “Siblings of Doctors,” Abed is a socially awkward, yet endearing, aspiring filmmaker. A lover of pop culture, Abed is pursuing his dream of filmmaking despite his father’s wishes to run the family restaurant. Abed is shown as supportive and understanding towards his new eclectic group of college friends.