When the BAFTA and Oscar nominations were announced earlier this month, Warner Bros.’ “Dune.” and Legendary Pictures received a total of 21 nominations, including the coveted Best Picture nomination from each group.
“Dune” is about a young white man from the fictional planet Atreides. He develops his special abilities and fulfills his destiny by saving the planet Arrakis and its inhabitants from the brutal Harkonnen Empire. Arrakis, a desert planet where the Fremen people live, is the location of the rare and powerful substance called spice which is used for space travel and needed to save the universe. Fremen’s environment is reminiscent of the Middle East, including a language that contains Arabic words. Moreover, the clothing style is reminiscent of what one might find in the Middle East.
When the film was released last year, many Muslims insisted the film was orientalist, promoting the old white savior trope. The film appropriated elements of Islam while diluting the Islamic and anti-imperialist elements of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel on which it is based.
We define “Orientalism,” popularized by the late scholar Edward Said in 1978, as a paradigm that justifies colonialism or the assertion of Western power over the East. Historically, it has consisted of exotic images of harem girls and desert landscapes, portrayed as backward and uncivilized.
“Dunes” is neither the beginning nor the end of this problem, but it perpetuates a harmful history. Orientalism is so ingrained in the way we see other peoples and cultures that it goes unnoticed.
Hollywood has a long history of trafficking and profiting from the portrayal of the Middle East as exotic and backward with films such as “The Thief of Baghdad” (1921), “One Thousand and One Nights” (1942), “Aladdin and his lamp” (1901, 1928), and others. But we are in 2022, not in 1922.
Hollywood has made progress in diversifying representations. In the last five years we have seen a marked shift from Muslims being supporting characters or villains, to being the stars of TV shows like ‘Transplant’, ‘Ramy’, ‘We Are Lady Parts’, ‘Young Justice Phantom” and the wonderful animated children’s show “Glitch Techs”. Unfortunately, the movies are still lagging behind.
While there has been this progress in Hollywood, it’s often in response to a crisis – #OscarsSoWhite, Black Lives Matter or President Trump’s Muslim ban. But for real, long-term, lasting progress to occur, it cannot be a knee-jerk response to the latest case of police brutality against black people, or the latest hate crime against Muslims, or the latest discriminatory policy against trans people.
Real change requires understanding and approaching the crisis as a secular crisis rather than a momentary push.
The issue of “inclusion” of so-called Muslim characters and storylines has never been an issue for the industry. Hollywood has earned billions of dollars “including us”, but unfortunately inaccurately and inauthentically.
That’s why we do the work we do at the MPAC Hollywood Bureau and History Studio. Our respective missions are to get better and more nuanced stories about Muslim communities.
At a time when Hollywood is diversifying representations like never before, when it comes to Orientalism, why isn’t it controversial enough to spur change?
If we really want to diversify and create truly inclusive representations, it’s time to take seriously the negative impact of Orientalism. As advocates and scholars, we suggest that Hollywood’s fascination with the exoticism and othering of Muslims, Arabs and their cultures should be a wake-up call for the industry as a whole.
Certainly, many would argue that portrayals of the Middle East as exotic are much better than those as violent. According to what standard? Any narrative that normalizes Western superiority over any group is harmful, no matter what decade or century we find ourselves in. It turned out to be the case and always will be.
Sue Obeidi is the director of the Hollywood Bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Evelyn Alsultany is an associate professor at Dornsife College at the University of Southern California and a specialist in portrayals of Muslims in American media.