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Everyone’s Favorite Orientalist Disney Movie Is Missing A Lead Actor

by Tasbeeh Herwees

July 12, 2017
Image from “Aladdin” (1992)/Disney.

There are an estimated 3.7 million Arab-Americans in the U.S. and more than 300 million worldwide, but Guy Ritchie reportedly can’t find a single one among them who can act and sing. Hired by Disney to helm the live-action remake of “Aladdin” — because all we have now are remakes — Ritchie is apparently having a lot of difficulty finding an Arab (or Indian) actor to take on the role. Per The Hollywood Reporter:

“The original casting call specified that production was slated to begin by July, but the search has dragged on, with Disney and Ritchie having to go back to the drawing board multiple times. Sources say there have been several rounds of tests in London, with the actors coming in for up to two weeks at a time. ‘The test process was a mess,’ says one agent with a client who tested.”

Let’s be clear: The original “Aladdin” film was set in a fictional place called Agrabah that served as a composite of Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures spanning multiple continents, synthesizing them into one, neat Orientalist monolith. The opening song once contained the lyrics, “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” which the studio changed only after Arab-American groups aired their fervent displeasure. Already, we have to question the necessity of this remake — why legimitize a franchise that peddles in hurtful stereotypes about brown people from that part of the world?

But since we’re here already — the ink, I assume, is dry on Ritchie’s contract — let’s question the claim that it has been difficult for Ritchie and his colleagues to find a suitable actor for the role. As one tweet succinctly put it, Hollywood has never had a problem finding brown people to play dress-up for terrorist roles. Dev Patel and Riz Ahmed aren’t the only brown actors out there; there are others, certainly, deserving of a big break.

The opening song once contained the lyrics, 'It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.'

It seems poignant that this bit of casting news should coincide with the death of Jack Shaheen. The Arab-American film critic and university lecturer passed away this week, on July 10. His enduring legacy will be “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Villifies A People,” a 600-plus-page tome (turned documentary) that critically examines depictions of Arabs in television and movies. The study was the first of its kind at the time (2001) and coincided with an era of renewed Islamophobia ushered in by the War on Terror.

Here’s what Shaheen wrote about “Aladdin” at the time:

“Disney animators anglicize the film’s heroes, Aladdin, princess Jasmine, and the Sultan. Conversely, they paint all the other Arabs as ruthless, unvilized caricatures. The animators attribute large bulbous noes and sinister eyes to palace guards and merchants. Throughout, the action and dialogue imply that Arabs are abhorrent types, that Islam is a brutal religion. ... Producers set the film not in fifteenth-century Baghdad, a center of Arab culture, but in Agrabah, a backward mythical kingdom. Occupying Agrabah’s foreboding desert castle, complete with Arabesque cupolas, are thieves, harem maidens, and ugly vendors. Out ‘to slice a few throats,’ and speaking with idiotic accents, are hiss-able villains: Jafar and his bizarre cohorts.”

Why is this story being revived? The thing is, Hollywood doesn’t just need new actors, it needs new storytellers, people who can rejuvenate these genres with fresh narratives. All the best to Guy Ritchie, but I want to see what Cherien Dabis and Sam Esmail do next. 

Share image from “Aladdin” (1992)/Disney.

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Everyone’s Favorite Orientalist Disney Movie Is Missing A Lead Actor