Hollywood activist, Jack Shaheen, sadly passed away earlier this month. Mr. Shaheen, a Lebanese-American, was one of the most vocal critics on the way Arabs and Middle Easterners were depicted on television programs and films. Jack Tchen, who teaches cultural history at New York University, recounts how Mr. Shaheen first became an advocate. “His children came to him and said, ‘Daddy, Daddy, I saw a bad Arab on TV,'” explains Jack Tchen. It was 1974 and Mr. Shaheen’s children were at home, watching cartoons. “And he began paying attention to those kinds of representations.”
According to PRI: “Shaheen spent the next three decades of his life documenting and criticizing the negative way Arabs and Middle Easterners are portrayed in movies and on TV.” In a 2006 documentary based on his book called ‘Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,’ Mr. Shaheen said he watched more than 1,000 movies. Mr. Shaheen’s biggest victory came in 1992 when he managed to convince Disney to change an offensive lyric to the opening song of the animated film “Aladdin” (as a result, the video release was modified). In 1999, he became a consultant for the film “Three Kings,” and he consulted George Clooney and the production of the film “Syriana” in 2005.
Mr. Shaheen wasn’t trying to make all depictions of Arabs and Middle Easterners overly “goody-goody” but he did want to make them real. “Once we begin to humanize Arabs and Muslims, to project them as we project other people — no better, no worse — then the stereotype gradually diminishes,” he once remarked.