Looking Past Clichés

Looking Past Clichés

The Visitor is that rare film that defines Arabs not as ethnic or religious stereotypes but as individuals.


On first glance, Tom McCarthy’s new film, The Visitor, seems to set itself up as one of those dreadful movies in which a white, male protagonist witnesses some predicament of people of color and then, innocently and chivalrously, proceeds to save them. Think Blood Diamond or Rendition or The Last King of Scotland. Some people cry during these movies; I usually yawn and check my watch. But The Visitor quickly turns the formula on its head. For one thing, the main conflict that propels the story is caused by all the characters, and, for another, whatever realizations are made at the end of the film do not neatly separate the characters as savior and saved.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins of HBO’s Six Feet Under) is a Connecticut College professor who specializes in Third World economics. Between his teaching, his research paper, the book he’s writing and his piano lessons, he appears to be quite busy, particularly for a widower who lives alone. But the truth is that he has nothing at all to do. He teaches the same syllabus year after year; the research paper is merely a favor to a colleague who’s up for tenure; he doesn’t get any writing done on his book; and the piano lessons are a disaster. When he is asked to go to New York to deliver the paper at a conference, he resists. Jenkins adeptly shows the extreme strain that this small break of routine puts on Walter.

Upon arrival in New York, Walter finds two people living in his second home–a young couple who rented the place from a scam artist. They are Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian drum player, and his girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), a Senegalese jewelry designer. Both are undocumented immigrants, so they rush to pack up and leave, fearing that Walter may call the police. Standing aside and sipping his glass of wine, Walter seems aloof and annoyed by the irruption of the couple into his life, but eventually he asks them to stay until they can find a new place. Walter and Tarek strike up a friendship, which seems to develop just a bit too quickly to be entirely believable.

Once this relationship begins, though, the movie takes on a life of its own, carefully and meticulously building a story. Tarek starts to teach Walter how to play the drum, an instrument for which Walter seems to have a greater affinity than the piano. When the police falsely accuse Tarek of jumping a turnstile in the subway, they discover he is an illegal immigrant and take him to a detention center in Queens. Walter finds himself in the awkward position of being the only one who can go inside the place without fear of arrest. Zainab, being illegal, might get arrested if she visits. A couple of days later, Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), flies in from Michigan to stay with Walter in his apartment. A new sort of friendship develops here, a more precious and fragile one in some ways. As the movie progresses there are many surprises along the way. The most delightful of these, I think, is the fact that McCarthy has created Arab and Muslim characters who are actual individuals rather than stereotypes.

In American cinema, complexity is not usually an attribute of characters of color. Too often, screenwriters rely on stock characters: the sassy black nurse; the black drug dealer; the Latina sexpot; the Latino gang member; the Asian computer whiz. As for Arabs and Muslims, the caricatures are so persistent and pervasive they should be familiar to any moviegoer over the age of 5. The men are money-hungry sheikhs lusting after white women (despite having large harems, they just have to have that blonde) or brutal terrorists bent on destroying everything that is good and decent in America. The women are belly dancers hopping around in pantaloons or they are veiled in black and can’t seem to string together three words into a coherent sentence. The stereotypes are peddled in every genre: comedies (Father of the Bride), adventure (Back to the Future), action (True Lies), dramas (Not Without My Daughter) and even children’s movies (Aladdin). Some screenwriters have sunk so low as to present a 10-year-old girl as a gun-toting terrorist (Rules of Engagement). Media critic Jack Shaheen has spent decades documenting this pernicious trend in his books, Reel Bad Arabs and Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11. Perhaps someone should send Hollywood some copies.

A few years ago, when I was in graduate school, I wrote an article for a local newspaper about the stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims. A student in the same program pointed to the most recent suicide bombing in Israel and said that it is not surprising that American movies depict Arabs as terrorists, since they are terrorists in real life. This is missing the point entirely. The problem is not that there are Arab terrorists in movies; the problem is that this is the only portrayal of Arabs one ever sees in American films and television shows. In any case, even terrorists can be written as characters, not caricatures (Syriana, Paradise Now). The issue here is not just racist perceptions of Arabs; it’s also a question of lazy writing.

In an age in which television shows such as Sleeper Cell and 24 regularly remind viewers not to trust their Arab or Muslim neighbors, Tom McCarthy’s accomplishment in The Visitor seems nothing short of miraculous. Indeed, his Arab and Muslim characters are defined neither by their ethnicity nor their religion. They are individuals, with individual histories, individual tastes and individual choices. Tarek, for instance, immediately takes to Walter, but Zainab is more circumspect; Zainab values punctuality, while Tarek is perpetually late; Mouna drinks wine, Zainab doesn’t; Zainab finds it improper to stay in the apartment with Walter once Tarek is gone, but Mouna stays.

Most surprising of all, perhaps, is that no one is seen whipping out a prayer mat. Prayer scenes have been used in American movies in one of two ways: as a prelude to a terrorist blowing something up, thus reinforcing the connection between Islam and violence; or as a prop for an Arab character identified as one of the “good guys,” thus serving as a disclaimer that the filmmakers are not racist (See, we have a good Muslim! He works for the CIA!). The crucial prayer scene has been played and replayed so much in American films that we have all come to expect it. Its absence in The Visitor strikes yet another note of individuality. Wake up and smell the Turkish coffee: yes, there are Arabs and Muslims who don’t pray five times a day.

Mouna is troubled that Mr. Shah, her son’s immigration lawyer, seems to be in a rush to end the meeting to get to court. “Where are you from?” she asks, perhaps hoping to coax more sympathy from someone who hails from her part of the world. The answer comes in a deadpan: “I’m from Queens.” Even the wonderfully ambiguous title of the movie could apply to any of the four main characters: to Walter, who is a visitor in his own home in New York; to Tarek and Zainab, who are, after all, visitors in America; and to Mouna, who stays briefly in Walter’s apartment.

The title could also apply to the viewer of Tom McCarthy’s film–someone who comes into the life of these complex characters and is at once made to feel at home with them.

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