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Sacha Cohen's movie a minstrel show

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Fri May 11, 2012
Sacha Cohen arrives in London for the UK premiere of
Sacha Cohen arrives in London for the UK premiere of "The Dictator." Obeidallah says Cohen uses the worst Arab stereotypes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dean Obeidallah: Sacha Cohen plays an Arab dictator showing worst stereotypes of Arabs
  • He says it's the same as whites in blackface performing vicious stereotypes of blacks
  • Arab culture is not off-limits for comedy, he says, it's just that these jokes aren't based in truth
  • Obeidallah: If real Arabs had some input, jokes could rise above the superficial and clichéd

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog "The Dean's Report" and co-director of the upcoming documentary, "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie, "The Dictator," is a modern-day minstrel show judging from the trailer and Cohen's comments promoting the film while dressed as the film's star, "Gen. Shabazz Aladeen," the leader of a fictitious Arab country.

Cohen, who is not of Arab heritage, plays this Arab character while sporting a long fake beard and speaking in a strong Arabic accent, which would be fine, except the character is showcasing the worst stereotypes of Arabs.

For example, at a news conference in New York City this week promoting his film, Cohen exclaimed: "Welcome devils of the Zionist media and death to the West." He then joked about liking TV shows that showed Arab terrorists killing Americans and admiring fashion designer John Galliano for hating the Jews.

To me, this is essentially the same as white performers in blackface portraying black people in buffoonish negative stereotypes for the enjoyment of white America.

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But I am not advocating a ban on offensive comments or the telling of culturally insensitive jokes. I certainly am not calling for more PC comedy. I'm not calling for a boycott of anyone nor asking for one more insincere "I'm sorry to all those who were offended by me" from a celebrity.

I'm in no way arguing that Arab culture is off-limits or cannot be mocked. I'm a comedian of Arab heritage and have performed comedy shows not only for Arab-American groups across the United States, but also in the Middle East, from Egypt to Qatar to Saudi Arabia. I find the biggest laughs are elicited when performers hold up a comic mirror to Arab culture.

But for some reason, the entertainment industry appears to truly enjoy ridiculing "brown" people, Arabs and Indians, and has no qualms about casting people not of our heritage to portray us. Indeed, just last week Popchips snack company found itself embroiled in a controversy because an ad showed Ashton Kutcher playing an Indian character in brownface, similar to what Cohen is doing in "The Dictator."

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Here is my simple request to the entertainment industry: If you are going to mock and ridicule us for profit, can you at least cast Arabs and Indians to play us? And while we're at it, why not include us in the creative process as co-writers and directors?

If you look at the names of the writers, co-stars and director of "The Dictator," none is of Arab heritage. Ben Kingsley, who is of Indian heritage, co-stars, but if you don't know the difference between Arabs and Indians, go to Google.

And let's be honest, these types of buffoonish "brownface" stereotypes would not be permitted if it were any other minority group.  What would the reaction be if a white actor in blackface mocked African-American culture? Or if an actor of Arab heritage pitched a movie about the leader of a fictitious Jewish state in which he would portray the Jewish leader and showcase the worst stereotypes of Jews? Is there any chance that film would get the green light from a Hollywood studio?

I understand that the entertainment industry is about making money, not correcting negative stereotypes -- even those they helped perpetuate. But why not cast a person who is actually Arab as the sidekick to the star who is pretending to be Arab?

Arabs and South Asians have long been ghettoized in Hollywood, playing almost exclusively cab drivers, deli workers, terrorists and the occasional "good" guy who works with law enforcement, and who is usually killed later in the movie by a bad "brown" guy.

But here's the thing Hollywood: Adding people of our heritage to the movie is actually good business. It would help the film rise above the superficial and cliched material we have seen for years when it comes to Arabs and Indians on the screen. For example, the jokes in "The Dictator" trailer sound like a less clever version of the material you would hear from comedian Jeff Dunham's ventriloquist dummy "Achmed the Dead Terrorist." 

Hollywood learned this very lesson years ago when it made mafia movies with no Italian-Americans involved in the creative process or as stars. Those films failed because they lacked any true understanding of Italian culture, which would have enhanced the film. That changed when Paramount Studios hired Francis Ford Coppola, then a little-known director, to helm "The Godfather." In turn, Coppola hired talented but unknown Italian-American actors such as Al Pacino and John Cazale ("Fredo Corleone") to be co-stars. The rest is cinematic history.

In time, there will likely be an Arab and Indian-American Denzel Washington and Spike Lee. And that will come from a combination of the artists in those communities creating their own projects -- which is increasingly happening -- but also being cast in the bigger budget Hollywood movies. The big studio movies have the greatest reach and are the ones which create stars who then have the ability to get movies made that would present their culture in a more nuanced and entertaining manner.

"The Dictator" may turn out to be a blockbuster hit or a big budget miss. But I can assure you that the film would have been better if it included some input from the very community being ridiculed by the film.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

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