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Has Hollywood Been Unfair to Muslims?

A new movie takes aim at an alleged epidemic of on-screen Arab bad guys and woes of Arab-American actors.

by
Christian Toto

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January 26, 2009 - 12:00 am
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Hopes that AmericanEast would take a subtle look at Islam and its integration with U.S. culture fly out the proverbial window in the film’s opening minutes.

A young boy asks his father why he’s a Muslim and, a minute later, if they can buy a Christmas tree. All the while, a radio news bulletin informs them of the latest arrests involving Islamic radicals.

AmericanEast, released last week on DVD, has little time for nuanced storytelling. But bombastic tales can be just as rewarding as quiet ones, and for a while East succeeds on those simple terms.

But the movie stumbles along with its crush of supporting storylines and wraps with a scene that evokes Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The film’s descent into chaos lacks Lee’s fevered approach to racial topics — and its entertainment value.

Sayed Badreya plays Moustafa, the kind-hearted café owner who believes in the American dream with a fervor few of his Arab-American peers, or any other immigrant group, can match. His faith is complicated on a number of fronts. His son questions why he can’t be just like everyone else at school. His sister bristles at the arranged marriage set before her. The conversation in his café too often turns to politics which threatens to chase customers away.

One of the café’s regular diners (Anthony Azizi) spouts anti-American and anti-Israel nonsense while casting suspicious eyes on any Jew in sight.

These sequences are as heavy handed as you might expect, but they have the snap of the debates which raged in the two Barbershop features. Here, the ideological back and forths are forgivable, and occasionally entertaining.

But it’s hard to excuse the approach when it takes over the rest of the story.

AmericanEast packs in more subplots than it can support, including the woes of a fledgling actor named Omar (Kais Nashif) who can only get work as a “terrorist” in TV and films.

Parts for Arab-American actors, and for many minorities in Hollywood, truly are in short supply, but to say there’s been a rush of Arab baddies on the big screen since 9/11 is simply inaccurate.

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