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Father of the Bride II

Reel Racism

Father of the Bride, Part II

by Jack Shaheen, Ph.D.

Disney has done it again.

Touchstone Pictures, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, recently released their rendition of a feel-good family film, Father of the Bride, Part II. Disney executives feel good about Bride II, listed among the top ten weekly money-makers.

But eight million American-Arabs and Muslims do not share Disney’s enthusiasm. They are repulsed and troubled by the film’s unwarranted caricatures.

Beginning with the original 1950 Spencer Tracy/Elizabeth Taylor film, all Father of the Bride movies have focused on marriage and love. Bride II is a sequel to the 1991 Steve Martin remake. As Americans of Arab heritage are not injected as money grubbers in any of the earlier versions, what prompted Disney to inject stereotypes in its 1995 Bride II, especially at a time when the industry is trying to curb biases?

Kimberly Williams and Steve Martin

Consider the plot. Steve Martin appears as George Banks, a dad who is shocked to learn he will soon be a grandfather, and doubly shocked when wife Nina (Diane Keaton) tells him she is pregnant. Though the happily married Banks’ have a wonderful “Brady Bunch” home, George induces Nina to sell it. Suddenly, buyers surface: the crass Habibs. Even the film’s ferocious Doberman pincers behave better than this duo.

The rich, unfeeling and unkempt Mr. Habib (Eugene Levy) smokes, needs a shave and talks with a weighty accent. When his wife attempts to speak, Habib barks mumbo-jumbo phrases at her, supposedly exemplifying Arabic. Mrs. Habib heels, perpetuating Hollywood’s stale image of the Arab woman as a mute, submissive nonentity.

Habib hands fifteen one thousand dollar bills to George, insisting the Banks’ “be out in ten days…or no deal.” George and daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) rush to their Maple Drive residence for one last look. Mush music underscores past sentiments, as father and daughter recall when they carved their initials on a tree, played basketball. Abruptly, the music changes. Habib enters the frame, commanding, “You got a key, George? The key!” As George and Annie fondly view the house, Habib tosses his cigarette on the immaculate walkway, crushing it. The message is clear: There goes the neighborhood.

The next morning, Habib, who purchased the house only to destroy it, steers a huge yellow wrecking ball, asserting, “See, I demolish house, put two in its place.” Pleads George, “I built this fence; I planted this grass. Don’t bulldoze my memories, man! I’m begging you.” Habib becomes Shylock. He will return the house, only after extorting $100,000 from poor George.

Appropriately, Hollywood’s screenwriters do not ridicule other Americans: the Goldsteins, O’Reilys, Gonzales’, Camp-ologos, or Yamamotos. To do so would invite charges of racism, engendering an onslaught of critical media coverage and protests.

Why didn’t writers project the Habibs as they portray the Banks’, as a lovable couple with pleasant children of Arab heritage? In this way, Disney could have enhanced its family-film image, complete with feel-good feelings for all Americans. After all, Americans of Arab heritage are an integral part of the American landscape. Ever since their forefathers arrived in the late 1800’s, they have contributed much to our country.

Watching Disney perpetuate “stereotypes” does not astonish this writer. Disney bashed Arabs in Aladdin (1992), the second most successful animated picture ever. And trounced them again by displaying hook-nosed, buck-toothed “desert skunks” in its home video, The Return of Jafar (1994).

Following sensitivity meetings in Los Angeles with American-Arabs in July, 1993, studio executives tossed a scrawny bone, deleting two offensive lines from Aladdin’s opening lyric from home videos. That’s it! All of Aladdin’s terrifying stereotypes remain intact: children see dastardly saber-wielding villains trying to chop off the hands of needy maidens, plus a wicked vizier getting kicks by “slicing a few throats.” Such scenes, as well as the film’s opening song, still teach children: Aladdin’s home is a “barbaric” place.

History reveals that damaging words and pictures have a telling effect, educating peoples whom to fear, whom to hate. Sadly, not so long ago, screen images taught viewers that the Asians were “sneaky;” blacks, “Sambos;” Italians, “mafioso;” Irishmen, “drunks;” Jews, “greedy;” and Hispanics, “greasy.” Fortunately, such offensive labeling is no longer tolerated.

The time is long overdue for imagemakers to begin eradicating bigotry of all types. There has been harm. The prejudices in Disney’s Bride II and other films engender among America’s Arabs and Muslims feelings of insecurity, vulnerability, alienation and even denial of heritage.

Make no mistake, the hate Arab-Muslim stereotype does not exist in a vacuum. Following last April’s bombing of the Alfred Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, more than two hundred hate crimes, ranging from eight vandalized and burnt-to-the-ground mosques, to a pregnant Muslim woman losing her child, were committed against American-Arabs and Muslims.

Many Americans believe those journalists incorrectly reporting that the bomber was someone who looked “Middle Eastern” did so because of preconditioning. For over a century, anti-Arab images have been pounded into their psyches. When motion pictures such as Navy Seals (1990), Killing Streets (1991), The Human Shield (1992), Son of the Pink Panther, (1993), and True Lies (1994) perpetuate myths that all Arabs possess a violence gene, racism is kindled.

Movies influence people. Consider the Wesley Snipes hit, Money Train (1994), a film depicting criminals fire-bombing subway toll booths in New York City. Soon after the film’s release, several copycats emulated Train’s violence, igniting subway booths.

I have some advice for imagemakers engaged in defaming peoples. Heed Bill Watterson’s insights. In his Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, Watterson writes, like films, “Comic strips have historically been full of ugly stereotypes, the hallmark of writers too lazy to honestly observe the world.” Declares Watterson, “the cartoonist who resorts to stereotypes reveals his (her) bigotry.”

In his State of the Union address President Clinton challenged Hollywood producers to promote entertainment that their own children would enjoy. Imagemakers should follow the President’s counsel and present fresh scenarios reflecting our common humanity. In this way, “ugly stereotypes” and cinematic hate may be erased from movie screens. And essays like this will never again be needed.

Jack G. Shaheen is a professor emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University at Edwards-ville and a CBS News consultant on Middle East Affairs.

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