After decades of portraying Iranians as terrorists and villains, Hollywood has taken the first step toward giving my community its due by creating a blockbuster fantasy/action epic film based on the immensely popular video game with the same title, against an accurate backdrop for sixth century ancient Persia. As a proud Iranian American, I couldn't be more pleased.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which opens this weekend and stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton, is a film with no political angle and no reference to modern day Iran. In fact it is a complete fantasy set in Ancient Iran or Persia. This is a good thing. By portraying Iran's ancient world in romantic and mythological ways - similar to how Hollywood has historically treated Rome and Greece - it becomes one of the most important mainstream films yet for Iranian Americans.
There are no stereotypes, no falsifications, and no misconstrued messages. The film and the video game were inspired by two of the greatest works of Persian literature: the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, a massive poetic composition written by the great poet, Ferdowsi (also considered Iran's national epic), and A Thousand and One Nights, a collection of stories incorporating ancient Persian folktales and legends.
Now juxtapose this with 300, the blockbuster film released four years ago in which the Persians were presented as monstrous, bloodthirsty savages. 300 drew a lot of criticism from Iranian Americans who were outraged, not because they could not appreciate a comic-book movie, but because of the film's overtly political message. Surely Iranians weren't the only ones to recognize that the conflict between barbaric and superstitious Persians and the rational and courageous Spartans depicted in the film was an allusion to the East vs. West, Clash of Civilizations ideology so prevalent in the post-9/11 world.
Of course, even before 9/11, movies routinely depicted Middle Easterners as either religious fanatics or toothless villagers. Growing up in the US, I remember well the responses I would get from Americans whenever I told them I was Persian. They would either give me a look of disgust and say, "You mean Iranian," or they would stare at me blankly as though I had told them I was from another planet. I quickly learned that these types of negative responses went hand in hand with the misconceptions most Americans have about my heritage.
In fact, most Americans have no clear concept of what it means to be Persian. They may have heard of Persian rugs or Persian cats, but they know nothing of the 2,500 year-old Persian Civilization that once ruled the known world (How many Americans know that, after King David, the first person to be called Messiah in the Bible, was the Persian king Cyrus the Great?). With its attention to detail, this movie may start to change that. The weaponry, costumes and jewelry are all reminiscent of ancient Persia. Arterton's character, Princess Tamina, wears clothing with paisleys on it- a design very often seen on Iranian clothing; her shoes are reminiscent of the giveh- hand woven, embroidered slippers often worn during ancient times.
One of the most common (and wrong-headed) criticisms of the film - outlined by Chris Lee in the Los Angeles Times - is that the hero, Dastan, played by Gyllenhaal, doesn't "look Persian." The fact is that Persians are Aryans that settled in the Iranian plateau. Before the conquest of Islam in the 6th century, many Persians were fair skinned and had light eyes, and this is still true today. In other words, they looked a lot like Jake Gyllenhaal. Not to mention that there are only a handful of international stars who could carry a $150 million blockbuster. By this logic, perhaps the many shades of dark that represented the Persians in 300 is what these critics prefer. The fact is that Persians have never had a homogenized look.
For once, Hollywood offers a sensible mainstream depiction of a rich and ancient culture. My culture. The fact that Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer have teamed up to create the first major motion picture set in ancient Persia is, in and of itself, a step forward for the community. Now, maybe when I tell people I am Persian, I won't get the same blank stares.