Fordson High School is a secondary school in Dearborn, Michigan. At times Dearborn has been a victim of hostility toward its Muslim community. The city has the largest concentration of Arabs outside of the Middle East.
The school and its football (American football) team is the setting for the new film “Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football“.
In recent years, Fordson’s team faced a range of challenges, from racial slurs hurled at them while playing to being falsely accused of being terrorists.
The film, about Faith (Islam), Fasting (Muslims during Ramadan) and Football (the film’s setting), premiered on September 9th, two days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
The team had to train during Ramadan, and in order to fast for the month, they set their practice times from 11 pm to 4 am.
Paul Brunick, reviewing the film for the New York Times, notes that “…sound bites of unidentified but recognizable talk radio and cable news mainstays are the kind of provocations regularly criticized by media watchdogs.”
A narrator in the film says, “We’ve been called many names: an Islamic School, an Arabic School, a Hezbollah High School, camel jockeys, damn Arabs, towel heads, sand niggers.”
One of the students comments, “It’s real hate; you can feel it.” But they’re young, they’re football players and they want to win, not just on the football field but as Arab Americans.
Says the narrator, “But when all of this hatemongering is mashed together with a sweeping orchestral march, the individual instances of bigotry are transformed into something larger: a glimpse of how monstrous our post-9/11 hysteria may appear to future students of American history.”
In the film, residents of Dearborn react to the events of 9/11. One man says, “Please God, don’t let them be Arabs” about those who flew the planes into the twin towers.
Another reflects, “We were hit twice; once by Osama bin Laden and second by those who associated us with Osama bin Laden.”
Very few films or TV programmes portray Arabs in a favourable light. Those that do need to counter the negative images reflected in the bigotry of a century in Hollywood.
Films like Oscar nominated “Syriana” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” which display Arabs and Muslims as people rather than stereotypes, can help break down the image that has been built up for years.
As Professor Emeritus Jack Shaheen made clear in his landmark study Reel Bad Arabs and his documentary based on the book, Hollywood has a long and reprehensible record of vilifying Arabs.
In a 2008 interview for Lebanon’s Daily Star, Jim Quilty noted that “Regarded as a sort of ‘Orientalism’ for film junkies, Shaheen’s book inspired ‘Planet of the Arabs,’ Jackie Salloum’s 2003 video that stitches together nine minutes of reprehensible Arab representations like a feature-film trailer. In 2006, the book generated Sut Jhall’s documentary ‘Reel Bad Arabs’.”
In the same year as his documentary appeared, Shaheen released his new book, “Guilty: Hollywood’s verdict on Arabs after 9/11.” In it, he reveals that instead of an improved image of Arabs, their portrayal has worsened following 9/11.
A review in Publishers Weekly points out that “In an index of more than 100 post-9/11 films, the book depicts and debunks the most prevalent stereotypes of reel Arabs—exotic camel-riding nomad, oppressed maiden, corrupt sheikh, terrorist. Dehumanizing portrayals of Arabs have real consequences…”
The road to deserved improvement of the Arab image in the west will be paved with films that portray Arabs as they really are.
It’s time to put ignorant stereotypes to rest by countering the propaganda with reality as in the Fordson film.
* Paul J. Balles is a retired American university professor and freelance writer who has lived in the Middle East for many years. He’s a weekly Op-Ed columnist for the Gulf Daily News. Dr. Balles is also Editorial Consultant for Red House Marketing and a regular contributor to Bahrain This Month.