Since 9/11 the ‘war on terror’ has spiralled and coalesced into a stand-alone culture where ‘terrorist’ has come to mean brown and/or Muslim. Actually being Muslim isn’t enough sometimes with plenty of people with brown skin, regardless of religion, have been harassed on the street because racists aren’t too down with accuracy. When defining a term it can be more useful to conceptualise what it is not, and a white man shooting up a cinema is not terrorism, police gunning down black men and women in broad daylight is not terrorism. As far as the film industry is concerned the right skin colour turns you and your people into an expedient plot device in the form of handily available villains.
9/11 is the culturally defining moment of our time so, for obvious reasons, the number of films directly depicting the subject have shot up (so to speak) and many more films reference the culture of 9/11 in their background. We exist in a culture of 9/11 because “terrorism” functions as an accusation for brown and/or Muslim people. This “war” relies on Western and white supremacy to continue to bomb countries into civilization, sustain numerous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, remotely bomb civillians and children, illegally detain and torture prisoners without charge and, in general, simultaneously dehumanise and demonise brown Muslim people on a comprehensively global scale.
From a media perspective, an event on such a scale is a gold mine as much of the news reporting and almost universal understanding of the events (in the West, at any rate) can be communicated easily and compactly in coded language on-screen. It’s big enough that metonymy can easily come into play; need a villain for your film but don’t want to spend ages building a nefarious character? Just put a shady brown man who is inexplicably mysterious and angry, the audience will do your job for you!
9/11 and its associate implications have become a culture, their own history and lens for viewing brown people a sprawling entity in its own right. This culture lends legitimacy to institutionalised terror from Western states and media output will engage with that. Films, particularly, have often attempted to confront the complicated and messy history of actions and I have selected a few that demonstrate approaches to constructing brown bodies (I mean bodies not in the sense of “people” but as palimpsestic objects into which constructions are poured and consumed). Produced in the last 7 years these films take subtly different approaches to representing brown Muslim men, albeit with the same conclusions.
IRON MAN (2008)
The first Iron Man film is a prime example of terrorism and brown men being used as convenient stand-ins for a menacing villain that is easily communicated. When Tony Stark is first kidnapped we learn he is held captive by a group of brown men in Afghanistan, led by Ten Rings leader Rahul. The translated bits of language from the captors conversation is a bizarre mix of Urdu, Punjabi and Arabic. Time and time again films ignore basic facts about the appropriate language to use for whatever setting is used, but I guess it’s really expensive to, like, google it or ask someone, I guess.
The genre of this film also means that the chosen villain has a specific set of conventions to adhere to, particularly restricting their evil machinations for the benefit of the growth and journey of the superhero. Incidentally, in the original origin story, Tony Stark was kidnapped by Wong Chu, a Vietnamese commander during the Vietnam War. That should at least illustrate the modus operandi of superhero films, negotiating US and Western supremacy through the systematic takedown of the real life villain du jour. I mean, I love a superhero film, but let’s be real about how they work.
Even in this film, the real villain turns out to be Obadiah Stane who was actually manipulating the Ten Rings. The ideology of racist, Islamophobic imagery is easily communicable through having the kidnapping take place in Afghanistan, the mess of foreign languages, the hybrid mix of military and vigilante costuming and the brown skin of the men holding Tony Stark. Raza and his crew are turned into a sideshow, simultaneously malevolent in carrying connotations of the spectre of terrorist Islam, and helpless brown people who are thrust out of the their limelight into distractions from Stane’s machinations. This, coupled with a shot of Iron Man handily saving some brown people in a village where the Ten Rings dominated the locals, presents a view of brown people as a threat easily neutralised and helpless vessels who require saving (even if from themselves) as convenient ideology carriers.
ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)
This film more directly and extensively confronts terrorism, being a dramatisation of the US capture of Osama bin Laden, the chosen figurehead of Islamic terrorism. The film notably used extremely graphic depictions of CIA torture of detained brown people. Since the film’s release the CIA torture report has confirmed that the US (and other states, including the UK) have illegally detained great numbers of people, often in secret torture sites. Zero Dark Thirty positioned the torture as capable of gleaning reliable information which directly led to the capture of bin Laden, two facts disputed by the US government.
The film ends ambiguously, or at least, as ambiguously as a film about the US capturing its own self-made baddie can end ambiguously. Jessica Chastain’s character sighs and stares off into the distance a lot, apparently to communicate if not her guilt at their torture methods, at least a vague sense of unease. None of the Americans are particularly likeable and their personal story arcs revolve around the depth through which their work to capture bin Laden has taken over their lives completely. That could be another attempt at refusing to align with any ‘side’ and to quietly condemn the torture used by the US to capture terrorists, suspected or otherwise.
As it is, what is on the screen confronts not the consquences and moral leaps inherent in torture on such a grand scale, but the CIA’s role in capturing the most wanted criminal in recent memory. Director Kathryn Bigelow said, ‘I think it’s a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force.’ However, the torture becomes a side show and Bigelow appears so cautious about engaging with the politics and inhumanity in torture that the film wavers in the middle, leaving shades of condemnation that are clouded over by a commentary on the workings of the CIA and the determination to catch bin Laden.
Pakistan, where bin Laden was captured, is not particularly relevant to the story. The Pakistani government and military have almost no role to play in capturing a wanted criminal inside their borders, right next to a military camp, no less. Any brown people on screen are shown brutally tortured, aiding the CIA or existing on the peripherary to the centrality of the US as a force for good.
“There is no event in the past decade that has inspired as much collective pride and pervasive consensus as the killing of Osama bin Laden…this film repeatedly reinforces that belief by depicting torture exactly as its supporters like to see it: as an ugly though necessary tactic used by brave and patriotic CIA agents in stopping hateful, violent terrorists.” Glenn Greenwald
In representational terms, the end result is brown bodies being shown violated and brutalised by CIA agents and a film too aware of the volcanic politics it was aiming to confront to effectively engage with the base material in any profound or meaningful way. Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty couldn’t (and was never going to) confront Western superiority, settling instead for choosing to tell a story about a US triumph. The abject torture of brown men as they are captured, demonised for their possible terrorism, threatened mentally and physically and their families and acquaintances used as bargaining chips as they are thoroughly dehumanised by US agents in the name of US safety.
This film was only ever going to depict the politics and culture of the ‘war on terror’ in this manner, within the framework of US and Western superiority that defines how we discuss terrorism. The brown people are, again, a sideshow to the centrality of US growth and development, a peripheral concern in only the most abstract terms. Asking if torture in the name of US safety is not a ‘moral’ choice but an easy (and lazy) choice of story told in a climate of paranoia.
AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)
To be quite honest, I refuse to research this film beyond the original reactions that I saw upon its release. I refuse to watch it, I refuse to have anything to do with it. I don’t think it’s by any means the last film of its type, that is, the fullest extreme of the dehumanisation and demonisation of brown people. In this film brown and/or Muslim people are a sideshow, empty vessels to be shot at, convenient puppets in a story that is, at every single level, about American soldiers and their feelings, as though this war on terror has humans only on one side.
I could repeat myself again about the level of dehumanisation in these type of films but, instead, Frankie Boyle summed it up and I’m done.
GQ recently published an article interviewing men who have to play these terrorists, endlessly being killed by the all-American hero and one particular moment stands out:
“My agent had called me. ‘There’s this film. It’s a $55 million action suspense thriller starring Kurt Russell, Halle Berry, and Steven Seagal. They want to bring you in to read for one of the parts.’ I said, ‘What’s the part?’ She said, ‘Terrorist Number Four.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ She said, ‘It’s three weeks of work. It pays $30,000.’ ”
And so Ahmed read for the part. “My lines were ‘Sit down and obey or I will kill you in the name of Allah.’ And the director goes, ‘Brilliant! Do it again. But this time, can you give me more of that Middle Eastern, you know…’ I go, ‘Anger?’ He goes, ‘Yes! Yes! Angry!’ ”
Feeling a flash of actual anger, Ahmed decided to ridicule the process by going stupidly over-the-top.
“And the next day,” he says, “my agent calls me up: ‘You booked it.’ ”
…”There was an element of not working between those parts. And then I had an epiphany. I called my agent: ‘Hey! Don’t send me out on these terrorist parts anymore. I’ll be open for anything else, but not the terrorist stuff.’ ” Ahmed pauses. “After that, she never called.”
Nobody in mainstream media is interested in showing anything that depicts Muslims as humans with nuanced characters and personalities. It’s much easier to keep the brown skin with all its connotations of terrorism and extremism, pour in flimsy backstories of various misfortunes and proceed to use brown people as demonised puppets. It’s easier for producers and directors to do this because that’s the culture carried by every brown person, a mix of helplessness and underlying danger, anything goes as long as its dependent on white supremacy and the white saviour complex.