Hollywood's Race Problem: On Ashton Kutcher And "The Dictator"
Last week, Ashton Kutcher faced scathing criticism and outrage over an ad he debuted for PopChips, in which he dons brownface and a hackneyed accent to play the character of a generic Indian man named “Raj”.
The execution was as bad as it sounds on paper; Kutcher’s smug interpretation of what an Indian man looks and acts like came off like the obnoxious, oblivious antics of a former frat boy who doesn’t quite understand why he can’t use the n-word when Kanye can.
If you have any passing familiarity with Kutcher’s oeuvre, it might be easy to understand the stunning lack of taste on his part -- but one might question, as many did, the judgement of the people at PopChips who conceived and wrote the ad, who casted Kutcher and put him in make-up and costume, who shot the ad and then approved it for broadcast. Did no one, in the many, many levels of the bureaucratic process that gets ads made and aired, stop and say, “Hey, maybe brownface is not so much a good idea, but a really, really offensive one?”
“I can't imagine I have to explain this to anyone in 2012, but if you find yourself putting brown makeup on a white person in 2012 so they can do a bad "funny" accent in order to sell potato chips, you are on the wrong course,” wrote blogger Anil Dash in a withering appraisal of the ad, “Make some different decisions.”
It may be 2012, but even the simplest conceptions of racism, requiring the absolute minimum of intellectual thought, seem difficult to grasp among the Hollywood set. Kutcher’s lack of talent make him an easy target for critics, but one wonders how the racism inherent in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Dictator” routine is any more tolerable.
In his own version brownface, Cohen gets a little tanner, a little hairier and lot more misogynistic to play the authoritarian ruler of the fictional Arab Republic of Wadiya, modelled after the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who died last year at the hands of Libyan revolutionaries. Cohen depicts a crazed, bearded despot, spewing hilarious anti-Semitic polemics and funny jokes about killing people (Ha. Ha.)
As a Libyan-American whose family is still mourning the loss of a young man who was shot and killed, unarmed, by Gaddafi’s men, I find it difficult to find humor in Cohen’s bawdy jokes, and I know my Syrian friends, who fear for the lives of their family everyday, also find no comfort in them. And while I do not expect comedians to play by the rules of political and emotional sensitivity, I challenge the notion that funny, exceptional comedy must be completely unrestricted by the most basic tenets of human sympathy. In fact, this film may be the very evidence I use for my thesis.
But while the timing of his film is questionable, it’s even more difficult to accept his ugly caricature of Arab politics when Cohen’s shtick seems to hinge on little more than offensive, bigoted stereotypes of Arab men. Despite the very thin veneer of political satire, Cohen’s performance is a collection of generic, ill-conceived cliches borne of post-9/11 fear-mongering that ventures only to say, “Arab men are hairy and violent and they hate women and Jews.” His depiction is couched in nothing more than a dubiously funny accent and eccentric costume. Ultimately, it’s a White guy putting on brownface to make fun of Arabs. And if you don’t see something instinctively discomfitting in that, I’m not sure anything I say will change your mind.
In the context of contemporary politics, it’s easy to see why such a bigoted portrayal of a racialized group of people has become so commonplace and normalized in our entertainment and media industries. After all, Arabs -- and brown people around the world -- are being murdered every day, often by American drones, American policemen, and Israeli gunfire sponsored by American taxes. This reality would be a lot more difficult to contend with had we -- Western media and its consumers -- not constructed Arabs and people of color as inherently violent, one-dimensional barbarians already killing themselves. Americans sleep better at night thinking their tanks and missiles and soldiers only kill people like “The Dictator” and not like the children they send safely off to school every day. They feel better about themselves thinking “black-on-black” crime is a fundamental inevitability, a social fact, and not a symptom of structural racism.
When you look at the landscape American media, people of color -- and especially Arabs -- are not just underrepresented, they’re misrepresented. People of color are consistently cast in roles that are either violent or oppressive. When they’re not being killed by white people, they’re being “saved” by them. When they are not being overtly religious, it’s because they're “moderate” and “one of the good guys”. When they’re not cab drivers or liquor store owners, they’re terrorists or criminals.
And actors and actresses of color are told that only if they submit to these poorly-constructed roles of subjugation, devoid of substance or nuance -- roles as slaves, former slaves, victims of rape and violence, maids, nannies, “sassy” best friends, playing second-fiddle to white, Christian actors and actresses in lead roles -- will they be recognized by the Academy or Guild. In the past 10 years, only three Black actresses were nominated in the “Best Actress in Leading Role” category -- Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Gabourey Sidibe in "Precious" and Viola Davis in "The Help." All three played women who were the victims of racism.
The problem with this representation is not just that it’s offensive to people of color, but that it’s doing nothing to help pursue the ideals of a racially diverse, tolerant society we so proudly tout to people in other parts of the world. Because as an Arab-American woman, I grew up with plenty of Arab heroes and role models: Edward Said, Omar Al-Mukhtar, Mahmoud Darwish, Leila Ahmed, Um Kalthoum and my own beautiful Arab parents, among many, many others. I don’t need Hollywood to show me what empowered, badass Arab men and women look like--I already know they exist, because I had to look for them.
But there is a vast majority of Americans who will not look for them, who know little more about Arab culture, politics and history than the very contextualized versions they see of it on the news and in the movies. For many, Sacha Baron Cohen’s representation of what Arab looks like is the only kind they’ll ever get.
And while we continue to indulge ourselves in highly sanitized, post-racial fantasies, these Hollywood-sponsored perceptions of minorities are manifesting themselves in violent, oppressive ways out here in the real world, where brown people are flesh, bone and heart, and not just cinematic cannon fodder. Because the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant were not isolated incidents. They were not “random” acts of hatred or insanity. They were symptoms of a system that continuously marginalizes people of color and turns them into expendable casualties in the Wars on Terror, Drugs and Suspicious Activity.
When white movie-goers find it difficult to muster sympathy for the emotional death of an innocent child because she is black, we have a problem. When the only non-white actors in a show about Brooklyn, are nameless, periphery characters cast as nannies or sassy coworkers who dispense sage advice in the form of “urban” colloquialisms, we have a problem. When Billy Crystal performs a blackface routine at the Academy Awards, we have a really big problem.
Call it a quota. Call it affirmative action. Call it liberal pandering. Call it whatever feel-good, politically-correct euphemism you feel necessary to indulge yourself in. Hollywood has a responsibility to actively promote more realistic images of people of color in movies, TV-shows and, yeah, commercials.
Because Hollywood, ultimately, is the one losing out. In the ongoing revolutions of this year, Arabs are heroically rising up against violent, repressive regimes and speaking truth to power in the face of guns, tear gas and extrajudicial executions, and the only story Hollywood could tell is one about a silly little dictator who fell in the face of their power.
Reach reporter Tasbeeh Herwees here.