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Can context trump content? Gary Delgado watches the siege to see if a racist movie can be prophetic. (To the Point).

Can a significant change in political context change whether we judge a film to be racist? Almost four years ago, Twentieth Century Fox released The Siege, a 116-minute flick that features bomb attacks on U.S. soil by "Arab terrorists." Arab and Islamic organizations, including the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, launched protests against the movie, calling its images of Arabs and Muslims "inflamatory and stereotypical." Judith Gabriel reviewing the film in Al Jadid, an Arab cultural magazine based in Los Angeles, critiqued "not-so-subtle racism that lurked menacingly, familiarly, throughout the film."

I didn't see the film when it came out and was unaware of the controversy. So I was intrigued when my late-night channel surfing tuned into a scene of thousands of Arab men being herded into a stadium in Brooklyn for questioning. I wasn't shocked by the action itself, just surprised that Ashcroft had let the press put it on television. It wasn't until I saw Denzel Washington arguing with Bruce Willis about civil rights that I figured out it was a movie.

Life Imitates Bad Art

The plot for the movie cut close to the bone of reality. The movie replayed the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, along with two other attacks from "terrorists who haven't asked for anything." Underscoring their political interchangeability on some key issues, it was Bill Clinton instead of George Bush proclaiming on national television that "those who did this must not go unpunished." The powers of the U.S. police state are expanded, according to an unnamed character high up in the national security bureaucracy, because "you can't fight a junkyard dog with ASPCA rules, you take your leash off of a bigger, meaner dog."

So, the U.S. Army, under the command of General Charles Devereaux (Bruce Willis) takes to the streets of Brooklyn, where, he says, "We will hunt down the enemy, find the enemy, kill the enemy...and be back on the base in time for the playoffs."

The movie was racist. It assumed that all Arabs are Muslims and linked Islamic religious practices with terrorism. It reinforced the otherness of Arab people. Film critic Roger Ebert called the prejudicial attitudes embodied in the film "insidious, like the anti-Semitism that infected fiction and journalism in the 1930s, not just in Germany, but in Britain and America."

Did the film have racist motives? Director Ed Zwick claimed no. In an interview right after the film was released in 1998, Zwick argued that the film raised the question of how to balance where America draws the line between protecting national security and preserving civil rights. Some critics agreed. One reviewer argued that while the film's lack of clear resolution is frustrating, it did present a "coherent vision of how...terrorism can be triggered by the shortsightedness of American foreign policy." Paul Clinton's CNN review went further, calling Siege "politically correct to the nth degree" and observing that "the anti-Arab bad guys and the terrorists are all punished in the end." This film, Clinton wrote, "could have been made by the United Nations PR department."

Sieging the Times

But The Siege was made before 9/11, before the USA PATRIOT Act, before the internment of thousands of Arab and South Asian men, before 30 percent of Americans polled said that they were for the internment of people of Arab descent. Does the change in context, the foreshadowing of so many political events, change how we might view the movie? Is yesterday's racist flick today's prophetic wake up call?

Curious to see the whole movie, I took the plunge and forked over $9.98 for the video. I watched the movie twice, once to actually catch the flow, and again to rewind for choice quotes. There were a couple of nuances I missed the first time around.

First, I didn't spot the auspicious fact that the team holding up the unholy trio of FBI, Flag, and, curiously, civil liberties were all people of color. Hub Hubbard, the FBI agent in charge (Denzel Washington), is black, his partner is Arab-American, and their close confidant is an Asian American woman. So, instead of the "ethnic fifth column" conjured up by a number of right-wing columnists, Siege presents us with a '90s "mod squad" ready to save America from terrorists and internal fascism. But not racism.

Then, there's the role of women. Make that woman. While it is true that Zwick got it right when he pointed the finger at the U.S. for training terrorists, he undermined the point by throwing in the young-Arab-man-seduced-by-the older-irresistible-American-(white)-Mata Han, CIA agent Annette Bening. Barf!

On a scale of 1-10, character development for Arabs gets a zero. Aside from the background round-up of thousands of nameless Middle Eastern men in a Brooklyn stadium, the characters with actual lines include Samir, the fanatic terrorist, and Frank Haddad, the Arab-American FBI agent and self-proclaimed "sand nigger" who shoots Samir, even though his own son has been detained in the stadium by the army. There's also a man identified as a spokesperson for the Arab Anti-Defamation League whose only line in the movie is, "Whatever injustices my people may be suffering at this moment, we will continue to show our commitment to this country." Which one of these characters is the least realistic? It's hard to tell.

Even though Siege does make a point about civil liberties and the rule of law, the movie reinforces more dangerous stereotypes than it challenges. It is possible that the change in context could have transformed the meaning of the content. But Siege never gets past its own stereotypical assumptions. While the "facism vs. civil liberties" question could have been interesting, the movie makes it one-dimensional. Hub Hubbard observes, "Maybe this is what they want...children in stadiums, soldiers on the street... bend the law, shred the constitution a little bit." The message is that if WE Americans break our own rules, we become more like THEM.

While Zwick's motion picture reality forces us to confront our sense of fair play, it fortifies the notion that our sense fair play is the only one that counts. By deciding not to explore what actually happens to the people who are interned, or the profound conflicts in politics and national identity for Arab Americans (and, given the anti-foreign backlash, for many immigrant groups), Siege buttresses the notion that politics and identity are static and unresponsive to changes in the collective experiences of specific racial or ethnic groups.

One of the movie's underlying assumptions is that loyalty, patriotism, and American identity mean the same thing to all U.S. residents. And that they don't change. This is simply not true. Many people of color who are established residents in the U.S. have conflicts over these values, fueled by their recognition of discrimination and limited access to resources. For immigrants, while discriminatory treatment influences each group's ability to comfortably settle in the U.S., their transnational identities encourage what some social scientists refer to as a sojourner mentality--an attitude that keeps in mind the option to return to their home country if things don't work out in the U.S.

It's true that the movie didn't focus on any of these subtleties. But that's actually another problem. The filmmakers had the material to explore a number of interesting themes and focused instead on the simplistic. Several reviewers point out in the film's defense that "it was an action flick." But whose action? Despite right-wing columnist Ann Coulter's exhortation to "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity," it's actually the U.S. that is being changed by "them." Over 10 percent of the U.S. population (almost 31 million people) is foreign born, people of color make up 28 percent of the U.S. population, and by 2010 Muslims will be the second largest religious grouping in the country.

Despite the fact that the U.S. is no longer a relatively homogenous population of white, two-parent, English-speaking, Christian heterosexuals, our venues for cultural reflection still produce only ill-conceived caricatures of a new America. When will our fiction catch up with reality? When will the storytellers realize that at least part of the revolution may have already happened? "They" are us.

RELATED ARTICLE: Letters from INS detainees

I was sentenced to 10 years.

I served five and was paroled in October 2001 on condition that I get deported back to Vietnam. INS picked me up and brought me to Hudson County Jail. I have not seen an immigration judge yet! It's almost five months since I got paroled and I'm still in INS custody because Vietnam does not accept convicted felons back into the country. The parole board has threatened to take me back to state prison to serve the rest of my sentence if I do not get deported back to Vietnam. That is very unfair! I will definitely not pose a threat or danger to society and will not be a significant flight risk because I have nowhere to flee to! Please send me a lawyer to represent me and to have the INS release me on INS supervision. Please help me in any way you can.

I pray for you to receive this note in the very best of health and care. I'm not able to hold up any longer. I don't know what's going on with my case. My so-called lawyer doesn't inform me about anything.

I don't care what happens to me anymore, but I'm not able to continue being here. I just want to live my life, and if I'm not free to do, so I would rather end it. It's been almost four years in INS. I can't do it anymore. If you're able to help me by finding someone who would represent me at my bond hearing, I would really appreciate it. If I lose, well, so be it. I would rather vacate everything and get deported. I don't have any intentions of seeking any financial gain from INS or anyone else. All I want is to live my life. It's been seven years and seven months I've been incarcerated.

I left my country in 1998, planning to go to Canada for the safety of my life. Because of the civil war, I have had problems with the Sri Lankan Army and the Tamil Tigers. I left my country secretly and arrived in the United States on June 18, 1998.

I was stopped by INS at the airport because I entered the United States without valid documentation. My asylum application got denied. My attorney appealed for reconsideration, that appeal was rejected...

Due to this, the INS is planning to deport me back to Sri Lanka. I'm positive that I will be subject to torture if I get back to Sri Lanka, which means that the Sri Lankan Army will take my life.

I come to you as a humble human being to please help me in my situation. I have spent almost three years in detention, without direct sunlight. I'm living on a different planet. I hope and pray that you can help me seek the justice lam looking for. All I am asking for is a chance to live a peaceful life.

If there is anything you can do for me, please do it as soon as possible. Because the time is very short.

Gary Delgado is executive director of the Applied Research Center.
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Title Annotation:film 'The Siege' that portrays all Arabs and Muslims as terrorists
Author:Delgado, Gary
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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