WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME and partially while pacing in front of the building in hopes that the cold would keep me awake
FORMAT: iTunes digital copy on an iPhone 4S
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Sleepy. Just watched the documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People and read some Wikipedia articles on Libya and the Arab Nationalist Movement.
Several months ago, friend-of-the-site and future Cinemanaut Adam recommended that I watch a movie called Reel Bad Arabs, which discusses the ways that Middle Eastern characters are portrayed in American films. Here is a link where you can purchase a DVD copy for the entirely reasonable price of $250, which I most definitely did instead of searching Google Videos.
Cue up “YOU WOULDN’T STEAL A HANDBAG.”
The documentary even briefly mentions Back to the Future, albeit with a corny line stating “this movie wasn’t about the future; it was the same old stereotyping from the past,” but nevertheless, it was a pretty enlightening look at common Arabic stereotypes going all the way back to Hollywood’s early days. Such as…
ALL ARABS ARE BLOODTHIRSTY TERRORISTS:
Reel Bad Arabs frequently uses the satirical term “Arabland” to denote the generic Middle Eastern place where movie villains come from. In fairness, Back to the Future at least states that the terrorists that kill Doc come from a real country, Libya, but I noticed an interesting trend. Here’s a list of every term used to refer to Doc’s murderers, excluding pronouns:
- “Libyan terrorist group”
- “Libyan nationalists”
- “the Libyans”
- “you bastards”
Undoubtedly, their most important attributes (from a story standpoint) are that they assassinate Doc Brown and they fail to build a working bomb, so “assassins,” “killers,” “terrorists,” or even “bastards” would all be fitting terms, but the clear front-runner on this list is their country of origin, Libya, because the Middle East is Home of the Bad Guys. Where they’re from seems to matter more than what they do.
Terrorize, be bastards, etc.
ALL ARABS ARE INEPT CARTOON CHARACTERS:
I’ll admit, while the race-based violent nature of the Libyans in Back to the Future struck me as offensive before, I never picked up on their ineptitude as an Arabic stereotype until today. When both their assault rifle and their van stop working, I just assumed Marty was really lucky (a running theme in this film). Well, according to Reel Bad Arabs, it’s a long-standing Hollywood trope to depict Middle Eastern villains as being vicious and well-armed, but not particularly skilled or cunning. Essentially, they’re just crazy fuckers without a plan.
Again, I never really saw this as a comedic scene, just like I never thought Marty was a goofy idiot because the DeLorean crapped out; how is that his fault? Yet, after watching several scenes of Arabs making big threats and then fucking them up in countless movies, I couldn’t help but think that I’m supposed to be laughing at these guys. Keep in mind that Back to the Future was produced by Steven Spielberg, who was responsible for Indiana Jones shooting the wacky Arab swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark and once described Arabs in that movie’s brainstorming session thusly: “They carry the boxes over their heads. They fall off cliffs.”
“They’re smelly. They think shoes are food. You know the type.”
Once I saw all these villains reduced to slapstick cartoons, it actually gave me a new perspective on a shot that had been bugging me for months. When Marty speeds away from the van at 88 miles an hour, the guy with the rocket launcher is flailing around wildly for no damn reason. You know, instead of aiming the rocket launcher.
A gif would help here, but I’m too inept to make one.
I figured maybe he was just overacting the hell out of his frustration so it would read better on camera, but Jesus, dude, you’re not Daffy Duck. Ohhh, and here’s something I noticed extra clearly today; to fully display the funtime terrorism wackiness, the film is sped up when the adorable little murderers crash into the photo booth.
Nothing says “human cartoon” like a little Benny Hill action.
“Wait a minute, Bill,” the sexiest of my female readers are saying right now. “This is all sound and I definitely want to make violent love to you, but isn’t there another gang of bad guys in Back to the Future that are really stupid and Caucasian?”
Yes, it’s true, Biff Tannen and his goons are also dimwitted fucksticks who bust in without a plan and cartoonishly crash their car into things…
…but Biff is nevertheless a legitimately intimidating threat throughout the movie.
Thanks to his American can-do attitude!
Take away that Libyan’s weaponry and vehicle, on the other hand, and what have you got?
A flailing embarrassment.
The Libyans are such a non-threat after they wreck their van that we literally have no idea what happens to them afterward. Seriously, they’re packing a goddamn rocket launcher that I’m going to assume survived the impact, and yet the movie solves this plot hole with the power of editing. The novelization (and yes, review coming soon) hints that they were arrested, but the real truth is that these doofy stock villains just weren’t necessary to the story any more, so they probably wandered away with boxes on their heads and then fell off a cliff.
MORE TERRORISM AND INEPTITUDE:
Hey, let’s go for an American stereotype now; I don’t know much about politics, history, or geography. (Sorry, I was a science, English, and lunch guy.) I have never before wondered about Libya’s political climate circa 1985, and that’s probably because Back to the Future excels at depicting Libyans as forgettably silly plot conveniences. So, I did a little Wikipedia skimming before today’s viewing.
It was either this or books. Eww.
First of all, Doc calls our Arab pals “Libyan nationalists,” so what’s a Libyan nationalist? Well, the Wikipedia page for Libyan nationalism helpfully describes it as “the nationalism of Libyans,” going on to say that Libya under Gaddafi was all about pan-Arabism, which is closely connected to Arab nationalism. I swear, if I click on that and it just tells me it’s “the nationalism of Arabs”…
The flag of the Arab Revolt symbolizes a revolt of Arabs!
Okay, so the basic goal of Arab nationalism is to unite the Arab world as one nation and reject Western influence. Is that what the Libyans in Back to the Future want? Wait, then why did they ask an American to build them a bomb instead of proudly getting an Arab scientist to do it? Is that supposed to be a joke? Are they being inept again? Maybe they don’t support Arab nationalism and want Libya to do its own thing? Is Doc just completely ill-informed about these guys? Are they even from Libya?
I think this movie is making me dumber.
MEET THE LIBYANS:
As the credits rolled on Back to the Future, I thought back to a scene in Reel Bad Arabs where an Arabic comedian named Ahmed Ahmed describes his experience of auditioning to play Terrorist #4 in Executive Decision, during which he was asked to ramp up his craziness even more. This inspired me to look up the actors playing the Libyans and see if they were frequently typecast as Arabic villains.
First up, Richard L. Duran as Terrorist.
Richard is actually more known for his stunt work, which makes sense since he spends most of Back to the Future hanging out of a van, but many of his acting roles include villainous terms like “hood,” “thug,” “prisoner,” “punk,” “killer,” “gangster,” “gangbanger,” “nasty man,” and the possibly nefarious “Man with Chub.” Some of his credits also specifically mention his character’s ethnicity, such as Indian in Car, Mexican Cop, Cherokee #1, or my personal favorite, Afghan Man, a figure so important to the mythos of MacGyver that somebody deemed him worthy of his own character page on IMDb.
And now, Jeff O’Haco as Terrorist Van Driver.
Jeff also does a lot of stunts, and is also cast as mean-sounding words like “bandito,” “thug,” “goon,” and “bar fighter.” Ethnicity is relevant in some of his titles, such as Columbian, Half Breed, and, uh, Vulcan Elder, with a few Hispanic and American Indian names as well. The most important item in his biography, however, is the honor of being named Playgirl magazine’s Man of the Month for April 1987.
I was going to end with a nice wrap-up on what I’ve learned about the dangers of stereotyping, but once again, I’m distracted by trying to find pornographic images of bit part actors from Back to the Future.
Hey, this doesn’t count as part of my viewing, but while unsuccessfully hunting for nakey pictures of Jeff O’Haco for this article, I came across a blog by Jordan Saïd called Turban Decay, which analyzes portrayals of Arabs in cinema. He does a much better job of analyzing the Libyans in Back to the Future, and he actually has animated gifs, so check him out!