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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Siege (review)

Evil Is in the Eye of the Casting Director

I’m not sure how much I should go into the controversy surrounding The Siege. I’ve seen the movie, obviously — I didn’t think anything about it was offensive. That many people do take offense seems to mean that 1) they haven’t actually seen the movie before they started crying racism, which I find easy to believe, or 2) that my lack of familiarity with the Arab/Islamic cultures prevents me from seeing the derogatory bits, which I also find easy to believe. Probably, the brouhaha over The Siege is a combination of ignorance on both sides of the fence.

Yes, The Siege is about Islamic Arabs terrorizing New York City. As director Edward Zwick has pointed out, Islamic Arabs do engage in terrorist activities in the real world. As Arab groups have pointed out, the only Arab faces we typically see in the movies are those of terrorists. I can sympathize. As an Irish-American, I get tired of the only Irish characters in Hollywood movies being IRA members. (Perhaps Russians are upset by the fact that Russian characters these days tend to be mobsters.) And yet… I can’t think of a single movie that baldly or even in subtext suggests that all Arabs or all Irish are bad guys. Perhaps the only Arabs or the only Irish in a particular film are terrorists, but it still doesn’t follow that the implication is that everyone of that background is criminal.
And I’d venture to guess that most of the people up in arms over The Siege know that. What frightens those folks is the fact that they know that most of the moviegoing audience isn’t going to make so fine a distinction. Most people, unfortunately, form their opinions about the world not from National Public Radio, BBC World News, or The New York Times but from The WB’s sitcoms, People magazine, and whatever’s on at the multiplex that weekend.

And the power that a face on a big screen can have can’t be denied. The Siege demonstrates just how easy it is for a movie to divide people into “good” and “bad.” Bad here is Arab. (There’s also an Arab FBI agent, though as a friend of mine pointed out, he’s in the traditional minstrel role — he has all the funny lines.)

But good has a more diverse face than I think I’ve ever seen before in a major Hollywood movie. In fact, there’s nary a white European male to be found in The Siege. The lead FBI investigator is a black man, Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington). His right-hand man is the aforementioned Arab agent, Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub, from The Imposters and Men in Black). Among the team they work with is Asian-American Tina Osu (Lianna Pai). There are a few white guys hanging around the FBI field office, but they’re only there to take orders from Hubbard and Haddad and say “Yessir” before scurrying off to obey. Oh, and there’s the mysterious CIA agent Elise Kraft (Annette Bening) who keeps interfering in the investigation.

Women, Asians, blacks, and even a token Arab — Hollywood is now telling its simpleminded audience that it’s okay to cheer for these previously demonized groups. Wow.

As if to drive home the point, the only major white male character in The Siege is the overzealous General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis). Despite his initial objections to having his army occupy Brooklyn, he goes to his job with great gusto, creating concentration camps, rounding up Arab men in the streets, and even torturing a suspect for information.

For the moment, perhaps those protesting The Siege can take a little comfort in the knowledge that it’s only a matter of time until Hollywood is bored with evil Arabs and lets them join the ranks of acceptable good guys. But will those same protesters come to the assistance of the next group to move into the shorthand-for-evil slot?


viewed at a public multiplex screening

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