It's been a little less than two weeks since American Sniper's full box office release, and while the film has enjoyed a stellar month of ticket sales, critics have raised some serious concerns over the message about war and Islam many moviegoers are taking away from it.
Starring Bradley Cooper as U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, American Sniper is a Clint Eastwood-directed war film based on Kyle's book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, a firsthand account of the deadliest shooter in U.S. military history with 160 confirmed kills.
While liberals and conservatives have turned Eastwood's gritty war drama into, as Bloomberg's Dave Weigel put it, the "official Oscar nominee of the culture wars," some cultural critics have raised concerns that the lionization of Kyle, who described all Arabs as "savages," perpetuates Islamophobic sentiments about Arabs and Muslims. And they're right — but the saddest part is that, since 9/11, this is nothing new.
The wrong kind of message: Rather than coming away from the movie with the subtle and troubling message about the tolls of war — both on the soldiers fighting and their families — most fans seem to be taking the film to be more of a pro-America, pro-war, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab diatribe that gives them free license to assume any brown person is a terrorist who deserves a bullet in the head.
The Guardian reports that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has seen a "drastic increase" in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab social media activity since American Sniper's release. Abed Ayoub, the ADC's national legal and policy director, told the Guardian that this rise in hate speech can be directly tied to the film's mid-January release. "The last time we saw such a sharp increase was in 2010, around the 'ground zero mosque,'" he said. The ADC has even reached out to Cooper and Eastwood, asking them to speak out "in an effort to help reduce the hateful rhetoric."
And in case you're wondering what kind of hateful social media activity the ADC is talking about, a quick look through twitter reveals that alongside a fair amount of critical praise from movie reviewers, the war epic has gathered praise from casual fans (though some of the comments are a bit off-putting):
Writing for Electronic Intifada, Rania Khalek put together this screenshot of tweets that are just as disturbing (though some have already been deleted):
As it turns out, this interpretation might actually be closer to the takeaway of Kyle's autobiography, which seems to glamorize the fighting a bit more (if that's even possible). As Alexander Nazaryan wrote for Newsweek, "American Sniper — the book, but not the movie — often delves into this uncomfortable moral territory, making the fight in Iraq seem less like a military campaign than a religious crusade."
Should we be surprised? Unfortunately, no. Since the terrorists attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been quick to vilify any Arab or Muslim, or even anyone who just vaguely looks Middle Eastern. Where Nazis and Russians were once the preeminent villains of the silver screen, Arabs have become the new de facto bad guys in American geopolitical thrillers, and too many Americans feel comfortable clumping an entire group of people together and labeling them "evil."
And unfortunately, whether intentional or not, the onscreen war games played out in American Sniper have fueled that hate. Writing for Al Jazeera, Ayoub and Khaled A. Beydoun (an assistant professor at the Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law) note: "While the familiar misrepresentations on the screen are damaging, the racist backlash inspired by American Sniper evidences that the film is equipping hatemongers with even more ammunition."
As Cooper portrays him in the film, Chris Kyle is a certified hero. Of course, he has his demons (though these are more fleshed out in the book than in the movie), but he's generally cast as the American everyman just trying to help his country win the war on terror.
Unfortunately, as viewers become increasingly enamored of Kyle's point of view, the line between art and reality is blurred and the audience looses focus. As Ayoub and Beydoun write, "Through Kyle's distorted gaze, the viewer similarly sees Iraqis as targets. Whether a veiled mother, young boy or the fictitious rival Mustafa — the black-clad, brooding embodiment of evil that is committed to the demise of Kyle and everything he represents."
This same kind of thinking can also be seen in countless other instances in the United States since 9/11. Whether it's a rapper's racist Instagram post from an airport (representative of the rampant and arguably ineffective racial profiling found at nearly every airport in the country) or the general sense that the actions of a select and evil few represent an entire race or religious group, it's nothing new for Americans to view all followers of Islam in a negative light.
And if you need further proof, just look at Hollywood. As Jack Shaheen, professor emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University, observes in 2006's Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, movies all too easily pigeonhole all Arab Muslims as the same kind of person:
"Arab Muslims are fanatics who believe in a different god, who don't value human life as much as we do, they are intent on destroying us (the West) with their oil or with their terrorism; the men seek to abduct and brutally seduce our women; they are without family and reside in a primitive place (the desert) and behave like primitive beings."
This thinking neglects the real damages on both sides of the conflict, as well as the obvious fact (which I can't believe I even have to restate) that not every Arab or Muslim living in the Middle East is an evil anti-American terrorist. But as long as enough Americans are already primed to have this kind of hateful mindset, representations of Muslim and Arab culture like those in American Sniper will just continue to inflame those stereotypes.
Ironically, the war Chris Kyle was fighting was one to allow every American to live in peace and safety in the United States. It's too bad that the end result is just the opposite.