Orientalism and the Erasure of Middle Easterners in Black Adam

7 November, 2022

 

Mireille Rebeiz

 

In the fic­tion­al Mid­dle East­ern coun­try of Kah­n­daq, Teth Adam is cel­e­brat­ed as a hero. After the assas­si­na­tion of his wife and son, he received pow­ers from the Coun­cil of Wiz­ards. He defeat­ed evil and freed his coun­try from tyran­ny. How­ev­er, and accord­ing to Kah­n­daqi leg­end, the Coun­cil quick­ly real­ized their mis­take when they not­ed that Teth Adam could not con­trol his rage nor his pow­ers. As a pun­ish­ment, he was impris­oned. Awak­ened by a pro­fes­sor, he returns 5,000 years lat­er to a col­o­nized and oppressed Kah­n­daq. Upon his return, he clash­es with the Jus­tice Soci­ety: Hawk­man, Dr. Fate, Atom Smash­er, and Cyclone.

Black Adam is an anti-hero. He does not stop to ques­tion the lim­its of jus­tice, nor does he believe in arrest­ing and pros­e­cut­ing vil­lains. He believes in revenge. An eye for an eye is his motto.

The super­hero movie was released by Warn­er Bros. on Octo­ber 21, 2022, and it is prob­lem­at­ic on two fronts: first, it leaves us won­der­ing why the lead­ing role is not played by an Arab and/or Mid­dle East­ern actor. Sec­ond, the nar­ra­tive is rid­dled with stereo­types and ori­en­tal­ist images of Arabs and Mid­dle East­ern­ers generally.

The cast of the Jus­tice Soci­ety is cer­tain­ly diverse, despite not being nec­es­sar­i­ly faith­ful to the heroes’ rep­re­sen­ta­tions in DC comics. There is much dis­cus­sion on the eth­nic­i­ty of Black Adam. Accord­ing to the DC data­base, Black Adam was a slave in ancient Egypt. Kah­n­daq is a coun­try sim­i­lar to Egypt. It is safe to assume that Black Adam would be in today’s world either Arab or at least a Mid­dle East­ern­er. It would be fair to say that he would not be a Pacif­ic Islander like Dwayne John­son, who plays the tit­u­lar character.

When Moana came out in 2016, John­son applaud­ed Disney’s effort to cel­e­brate Pacif­ic Islanders’ cul­ture, and yet he has no prob­lem embody­ing anoth­er cul­ture and anoth­er eth­nic­i­ty. Per­haps after play­ing sim­i­lar roles in The Scor­pi­on King and The Mum­my Returns, he enjoyed pre­tend­ing to be one of us.

Addi­tion­al­ly, like many Amer­i­can films, Black Adam is rid­dled with ori­en­tal­ist images that once again stereo­type Arabs and Mid­dle East­ern­ers and present them as infe­ri­or. Black Adam is phys­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent than the peo­ple of Kah­n­daq. Com­pared to his male com­pa­tri­ots, he is big­ger and bulki­er. He is man­ly and as pow­er­ful as a god. In con­trast, Karim — the professor’s broth­er played by the Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­can Mo Amer — is over­weight. This fat stigma­ti­za­tion implies lazi­ness and glut­tony, and Karim is often seen as seden­tary or sit­ting and eat­ing while action is hap­pen­ing around him. Fat stigma­ti­za­tion is often cou­pled with humor in sec­ondary roles to coun­ter­bal­ance the glo­ry and seri­ous­ness of the main char­ac­ter. Karim is cer­tain­ly comical.

 

Sarah Shahi and Mohammed Amer in Black Adam (cour­tesy IMDb).

 

The vil­lain, played by the Tunisian Dutch actor, Mar­wan Ken­zari, also rep­re­sents anoth­er stereo­type: the dark Arab/Middle East­ern­er. Much like Jaf­far in Aladdin (1992), he is sneaky with dark fea­tures and thick black curly hair. Final­ly, the pro­fes­sor, per­formed by the Iran­ian Amer­i­can actress Sarah Shahi, plays no active role in lib­er­at­ing her own peo­ple; she quick­ly shifts from the edu­cat­ed and coura­geous woman to embody the oppressed woman in need of sav­ing by an out­side force. Some folks may have appre­ci­at­ed her pas­sion­ate anti­colo­nial speech in the movie, which puts us in mind of the 2003 Amer­i­can inva­sion of Iraq. How­ev­er, her glo­ry is short lived and over­shad­owed with the arrival of the Jus­tice Soci­ety and their clash with Black Adam.

In short, Arabs and Mid­dle East­ern­ers have the sec­ondary roles of the buf­foon, the vil­lain, and the damsel in distress.

If one can ignore the dif­fer­ence in phys­i­cal traits between Black Adam and the rest of his com­pa­tri­ots, claim­ing that as an anti-hero, he is bound to be dif­fer­ent, one won­ders about his accent. How is it that after 5,000 years of impris­on­ment, he speaks per­fect Eng­lish, and yet Karim speaks Eng­lish with a heavy Arab/Middle East­ern accent?

Fur­ther­more, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Kah­n­daq as a dusty crum­bling coun­try is prob­lem­at­ic; it match­es the ori­en­tal­ist images of the Mid­dle East in the eyes of west­ern view­ers. In 5,000 years, noth­ing has changed. Much like the con­tem­po­rary views of the Mid­dle East, the fic­tion­al coun­try is unable to evolve, frozen in time, and con­tin­u­ous­ly at war.

While some Arab and Mid­dle East­ern view­ers cel­e­brate the crumbs we are giv­en by the film indus­try and applaud the small roles and minor rep­re­sen­ta­tions we are afford­ed on the big screen, some of us can­not but won­der about this sys­tem­at­ic mar­gin­al­iza­tion of our com­mu­ni­ty. There is a big push against white­wash­ing in the film indus­try. How­ev­er, what about minori­ties play­ing oth­er minori­ties? Does this qual­i­fy as cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion? If so, where is the out­cry when Arab and Mid­dle East­ern char­ac­ters are played by non-Arabs and Mid­dle Easterners?

If there is no cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion, the mes­sage the film indus­try is send­ing is even more dan­ger­ous. It either means that any brown per­son can play any brown role, as if we are inter­change­able, or that there is a hier­ar­chy with­in the brown com­mu­ni­ty, that some­how some are bet­ter than oth­ers. In Hollywood’s ver­sion of real­i­ty, Arabs and Mid­dle East­ern­ers would be at the bot­tom of the pyramid.

 

Mireille Rebeiz received her doctorate in Francophone Studies from Florida State University in 2012. She has a master’s in International Law and Human Rights from Université de Rouen in France, and a bachelor’s in law from Saint Joseph University in Lebanon. She is an associate professor at Dickinson College and has held faculty positions at Bowling Green State University Stony Brook University. Her recent book, Gendering Civil War. Francophone Women’s Writing in Lebanon (Edinburgh University Press, 2022) examines French-language narratives published between the 1970s and the present day by Lebanese women writers focusing on the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1991. In addition, she has published several articles in French and English. Her teaching and research focus on women’s, gender, and sexuality issues in armed conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. Currently, she is working on her second book on terrorism in Lebanon and finishing her second doctorate in international law at Penn State Dickinson Law. 

Arab identityfilm heroesHollywoodMiddle EastMuslimsOrientalism

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