Reality Checks on American-Orientalist Film, a review of Tim Jon Semmerling’s “‘Evil’ Arabs in American Popular Film: Orientalist Fear,”

Pamela Nice.

“Evil” Arabs in American Popular Film:  Orientalist Fear

By Tim Jon Semmerling

University of Texas Press, 2006

“‘Evil’ Arabs in American Popular Film” is an analysis of selected American films to prove author Tim Semmerling’s main point: the portrayal of Arabs in American cinema since 1973 reveals more about Americans and their orientalist fears than about actual Arabs. Semmerling insists that we focus on the cultural ethos out of which such stereotyping emerges. He wants to prove that American filmmakers have given Americans mirrors in which to see their own cherished ideologies and myths threatened by the demonized Arab.

It is a postcolonial analysis that is at times very insightful and at times frustratingly over-determined. As such, the nature of the analysis itself raises questions about Semmerling’s method of film criticism and postcolonial “unpacking” – particularly in his over-interpretation of certain films and the conclusions drawn from this practice.  The author shows promise as a film and cultural studies scholar if he could admit to a little more ambiguity in his anti-orientalist gaze.

His analysis of “The Exorcist” is the weakest of the collection because it is the most strained. What seems to the viewer an obvious parable of spiritual good vs. evil, Semmerling contorts into an orientalist fable, trying to prove with several far-fetched suggestions that the demon who possesses the young girl (Regan) is an Arab one. “This demon may confuse the audience because it is not clad with the obvious costume of the ‘Arab kit,’” he says.  He bases most of his interpretation on the Iraq Prologue – deleted from the original film but restored in the 2000 DVD release.  However, on the same DVD in the commentary with William Friedkin, the director states his own intention to portray “an ancient evil amid ancient stones.”  Friedkin insists that his film is about “the constant struggle that we have within us to keep from destroying ourselves and others,” which makes more sense to this viewer, as well.  If the Iraq Prologue could be cut and the film still make sense, how can it be crucial to the film’s meaning?

The analyses of the rest of the films are more convincing as postcolonial criticism, showing how the portrayed Arab world is either exotic; simplistically demonic, threatening the stability of America’s self-image as the most powerful global  entrepreneur (in “Rollover”); or morally victorious in battle (in “Black Sunday,” “Three Kings,” “Rules of Engagement,” and the televised “CNN Remembers”). 

Semmerling’s practice of over-analysis sometimes threatens his own conclusions, however; among many examples is the section on the soldiers’ party at the beginning of “Three Kings.” His attention to detail could only have been accomplished through viewing those scenes of the film over and over. But audiences do not view films the way they read books, and it seems unhelpful for a critic to do so if the detail gleaned implies an intention on the filmmaker’s part that is questionable at best.  Does the soldiers’ victory party imply they are morally defunct?  Aren’t most military victory parties like this –  lots of booze, sex and outrageous behavior?

Semmerling is more convincing in his broader strokes, and in his overall urging that viewers explore films as revelations of an unstable American psyche confronted with challenges to its dominant myths.  He shines in his analysis of “CNN Remembers,” which offers the most convincing support of his thesis.  He shows how CNN portrayed 9/11 as a moral battle taking place between innocent Americans and evil Arabs, and this portrayal tells us more about CNN and its view of America than about the “Arab enemy.”  The film makes no effort to explain why the terrorists might have acted the way they did, or Al Qaeda’s stated rationale for the attack.  These evil Arabs were simply evil. 

Semmerling’s concluding chapter is on the portrayal of Saddam Hussein in “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.”  In the movie, Saddam is engaged in a homosexual relationship with Satan, who is his “bitch.”  Clearly, of the two, Saddam is the dominant evil-doer.  Semmerling’s perspective on this topic sums up his book nicely:  “As a good rule of thumb, if a topic makes it to ‘South Park,’ then its popularity in American culture has probably reached levels of absurdity and deserves a reality check.”


This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 56/57 (Summer/Fall 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid

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