Second take: Mummies, mammies and true lies

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is protesting the portrayal of Arabs in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy as foul-smelling, money-grubbing cretins who would barter their brethren for a bag of gold. Who knows what The Mummy’s makers were thinking when they concocted this tangle of worn-out plot lines, special-effects masturbation and – without a doubt – bald-faced racism? A little early summer "fun"? More like a haul of pre-Star Wars cash and damn the consequences.

MT’s Big Screen review of May 12-18 – by Dayana Stetco – gave the film three and a half stars. But opinions vary, and some of us would barely give The Mummy one and a half stars. Its overuse of computer-generated effects gets boring and its gross rendering of Arabs is a surefire turnoff.

But is it surprising that a hack like Sommers resorts to Arab-baiting when serious auteurs like James Cameron play the same game? The Arabs in Cameron’s True Lies were demented fuckers without a molecule of morality. And the way they were drawn made it hard to imagine that The Abyss, Cameron’s plea for compassion and world peace, or Terminator 2, his antiapocalyptic masterpiece, were directed by the same man.

Are there Arabs like those in True Lies and The Mummy? Are there Jews like those caricatures of greed created by Hitler’s propaganda machine? Such parodies have more than a little in common with the tradition of "black face" imagery in America.

From the murderous ex-slave of Birth of a Nation to the bug-eyed minstrel of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer to the countless mammies, servants and lowlifes of Hollywood’s first 50 years, African-Americans have suffered an inordinate amount of stereotyping in the movies. What kind of reception would The Mummy have gotten had it suggested that blacks – or Jews – were smelly, vicious idiots? Maybe the latest Gatorade commercials, with young black "beasts" shooting hoops and growling in a cage, prove that no one would really mind.

At this writing, two Arab-American clerks have been arrested and charged in Detroit in the bludgeon slaying of an African-American customer at their neighborhood gas station. This news is mind-boggling not just because violence seems to inflect our most basic everyday interactions. The irony of one insulted minority joining in the oppression of another shouldn’t be lost on folks in the Motor City.

Nevertheless, a serious rethinking of Hollywood’s role in this vast multiculture of ours is long overdue. When it comes to fictionalizing our fellow (wo)man, whoever controls the production budget gets to lead the cheering and the smearing, to choose the heroes and villains, the dummies and demons, the stereotypes the rest of us get represented by.

George Tysh is Metro Times' arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]
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