Does FX’s new TV series Tyrant, co-created by Howard Gordon of Homeland and 24 fame, serve up the same cliché depictions of Arabs and Muslims, or is it something different? Well, let’s see what Tyrant, which debuts tonight, offers: Arab terrorists? It’s got ’em. Powerless female victims? Check. Corrupt, wealthy Arab sheiks? You know it. Arab men treating women horribly? Yep.
Despite that type of content and the fact that I’m of Arab heritage and have long railed against Hollywood’s irresponsible depiction of Arabs and Muslims, I’m not going ballistic over Tyrant. At least not yet.
Why? Because Howard Gordon has done something different with Tyrant: He has included Arab-Americans and Muslims in the creative process. As Gordon explained to me, his motivation in doing this arose from being “concerned that there might be potential sensitivities that I may not be aware of.”
Gordon did a few things to include Arabs and Muslim voices in Tyrant, which premieres Tuesday on FX. For one, he hired an Arab-American for the writing staff. Plus he reached out to a well-known Muslim-American group, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), over a year ago for their input on early drafts of the pilot script.
As Gordon explained: “MPAC has had a significant impact on the development of this project from its inception.” Gordon added: “I tried to address their concerns regarding cultural inaccuracies and potentially incendiary characterizations. I may not always have been entirely successful, but the dialogue has always been open and fluid.”
Suhad Obeidi, the head of the Hollywood bureau of MPAC, spoke positively about the experience of working with Gordon. Obeidi explained that Gordon truly did revise the script in many—not all—places flagged by MPAC.
All this doesn’t mean that Tyrant will get a free pass from Arabs and Muslims—nor should it. And MPAC is well aware that it may face a backlash from some in the community for serving as a consultant of a show that depicts Muslims and Arabs as it does, although MPAC’s Obeidi did assure me that future episodes of the series will present more positive representations of Muslims.
When I asked Gordon about the criticism of the show leveled by The Council on American-Islamic Relations that it portrayed Arabs and Muslim characters in a negative light, he conceded, “At some level it’s a fair concern.” However, Gordon tried to contextualize the show, explaining, “In Tyrant, the characters strive to make the most moral choices they can in a brutal and unstable political environment.” Gordon added, assuming that all Arabs are like the characters in Tyrant would be like watching The Sopranos and then unfairly concluding that “all Italian-Americans are murderers, criminals, and adulterers.”
Of course, the difference with The Sopranos—and I’m keenly aware of this because I’m also of Italian heritage- is that there have been countless positive representations of Italians in films and TV shows that offset the negative depictions from that show. We simply don’t have the same when it comes to Arabs and Muslims in TV and film. We basically are relegated to being varying degrees of “bad” in project after project.
Overall, though, this is a far different approach than we’ve seen in the past. For example, just a few months ago ABC Family announced Alice in Arabia, a TV series about an American teenager who is kidnapped by her extended Arab family and forced to live in the Middle East.
The uproar denouncing Alice was so swift that ABC Family cancelled it before even shooting the pilot. While some rejoiced over the death of Alice, I did not. As I wrote then, I would’ve preferred ABC Family had instead involved people from the Arab/Muslim community in the process of developing the show in hopes of making it more authentic and to avoid presenting the same old tired depictions.
I made the same point in 2012 about Sacha Baron Cohen’s movie “The Dictator. While the film followed the antics of the leader of a fictitious Arab county, there were zero people of Arab heritage involved in the creative team.
Can you imagine people writing a film about African-Americans without having even one person from that community involved?!
But here’s the bottom line: If Muslim- and Arab-Americans want to change the way they are portrayed by Hollywood, an instructive lesson may be found from the success of the African-American community. They, in essence, engaged in a two-prong campaign: 1. Loudly call out the racist depictions of their community in films and TV; and 2. Start producing/funding their own projects that told their story in their own terms. Once Hollywood found out money could be made portraying blacks in a positive, accurate light, they began supporting more projects like that.
Howard Gordon’s inclusion of Arabs and Muslims in the creative process of Tyrant is truly a positive step. But it’s still well short of what our community—or any minority group—should be content with achieving.
The question is, will Arab- and Muslim-Americans sit back and continue to watch others tell our stories in accordance with their own agenda? Or will the community follow the path of African-Americans and become increasingly involved in the entertainment industry by creating, investing their money in, and supporting projects?