02/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who Says no Bias? American Theaters Block Arab American Film

Every child needs a role model. For the most part, role models come from all walks of life, but the most important are those role models we see in Hollywood movies. And not just any role models. We look for "our own."

By that, I mean, Irish kids looked for Irish role models. Jewish kids looked for Jewish role models. Blacks looked for Blacks, Italians for Italians. And just like everyone else, Arab kids look for role models that are Arab, too.

As a child growing up on Chicago's Southeast Side in the 1950s and 1960s, I had no role models in the mainstream media, and especially none in Hollywood.

The movies were filled with villains and almost every villain was an Arab. The terrorists, the killers, the murderers all looked like they were related to me.

I'd go to the movies with my friends, frightened by the horrific images on the big screen, only to come back to the house and look around the dinner table and see the same faces that Hollywood vilified, exploited and stereotyped.

Other ethnic groups insist what I went through is what every ethnic kid goes through. Really? Well, yes, Italians have terrible images in the Hollywood movies, too. But I noticed that for every mobster who is Italian, there are at least one or two more good characters who are Italian also in the same movie. In other words, it is not the presence of negative images that is the problem.

It is the absence of positive images that IS the problem in American Hollywood movies. Yes, there are lots of negative images of every ethnic group, but there are also lots of positive images of ethnic groups, too, Except for Arab Americans.

In more than 250 movies made by Hollywood that include Middle East related themes or characters who could be surmised or are "Arab" or "Muslim," only about a handful, maybe five, have positive Arab characters. For years, the only positive Arab character in a movie was Aladdin in the Disney cartoon film and he didn't even look Arab at all.

Last year, two great Hollywood actors, Hesham Issawi and Sayed Badreya decided to do something that hasn't been done yet. They wanted to make a Hollywood movie that told a part of the Arab American and Muslim Arab story in a real way. They wanted to portray the reality of the Arab experience in America just the way it really is. And they made the film "American East."

The problem, of course, is that not one American movie theater would show the film. Not one. Out of tens of thousands of movie theaters, not one could find the courage to show the film to the public. Why?

Was it because the film was filled with foul-mouthed language like nearly every major movie and TV program? Was it because it was more violent than the films that are filled with violent?

No. It made Arabs look normal. It portrayed Arab characters in a normal environment as human beings, like everyone else, who have to deal with the traumas and tragedies of real life.

On Jan. 20th, the film that couldn't make it into American theaters because it portrays Arabs in a positive and negative light was released on DVD.

I hope you will take the time to buy it. I hope Arab Americans and Muslims will purchase the DVD, not just to enjoy a film that for the first time portrays the reality of Arab American life in the post-Sept. 11, 2001 world, but that does so in a fair and balanced and dramatic and compelling manner.

It's a GREAT movie.

But buy it also because if you are like me upset with the ugliness that is the stock and trade of the Hollywood movie industry, purchasing it is one way to protest. Make it a success. Share it with your friends and neighbors. Let them see what Hollywood and the mainstream media does not want the world to see, that Arab Americans are no worse, no better and no different than anyone else. We have our bad and our ugly. But we also have our good, our inspirational, our flowers and our beauty.

Is that too much to ask? I don't think so.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning Arab American columnist and Chicago radio talk show host. He is also the publisher of the National Arab American Times newspaper, Reach him at