Has Hollywood Been Unfair to Muslims?
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.
Let's face it. Hollywood was remarkably restrained after 9/11. Few films tackled terrorism directly, and those that did engaged in moral relativism (Body of Lies ) or bent over backwards to include heroic Arab figures (The Kingdom).
But the film's main storyline involves Moustafa's unfair arrest while picking up a family member at the local airport. He temporarily loses his son in the crowd and starts to yell his name to find him.
"Muhammad! Muhammad!" he cries, unaware of how an Arab man screaming the name of his religion's prophet might sound to a spooked populace. He's detained by an FBI agent (given surprising depth by Ray Wise) who interrogates him, then sets him free.
The incident appears settled, but it comes back to haunt Moustafa just as he closes in on a deal to open a new, upscale Middle Eastern restaurant with his Jewish friend, played by Monk's Tony Shalhoub.
And Moustafa isn't the only character here who gets arrested before the movie's end. If you believe AmericanEast, Arab-Americans routinely get arrested on little or no grounds. It's part of the film's bigger picture, that the U.S. -- both the government and its citizens -- have it in for Arab-Americans, guilty or innocent.
What's missing here is what's often absent from debates involving Arabs the world over -- unmitigated anger toward the Islamic terrorists who are trashing their faith.
The film's most egregious moment comes when Moustafa's daughter tries to tell her friend the history of the Islamic faith. It's an utterly one-sided look as Islam through the years that pins all the blame on those evil Westerners.
To be fair, the character telling this tale is smoking weed at the time.
AmericanEast scores points for depicting a wide spectrum of Arab characters, from the gentle Moustafa who sees the American dream as something tangible, to less agreeable types who get their conspiracy news from Al Jazeera. The film may be deeply flawed, but it's still refreshing to see a culture depicted on screen that rarely gets a closeup, much like the moderately successful Bella showed us another side of the Latino experience.
The filmmakers behind AmericanEast are clearly are bursting to tell their stories, their side of the cultural debate. And that's fine ... to each filmmaker his own. But it might take a series of films to address them in a dramatically compelling fashion.
Instead, we get a film so stuffed with thoughts, propaganda, and, ultimately, harmony, that it feels more like a flawed academic exchange than a flesh and blood film.