The Little Things: Can Hollywood Imagine Non-Stereotypical Arab Protagonists?

The Little Things was kind of forgettable overall. It kept me engaged, but I was underwhelmed by the “twist” and the ending didn’t pay off well. It seems that the director thinks the movie is more subversive than it actually is. At least the score by Thomas Newman and performances by Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto were great.

But I want to highlight on something in the film that might seem really trivial. There’s a weird dynamic going on here with regard to representation and it makes me question, do we want white-passing people of color to play white characters? I’m specifically referring to Rami Malek, who plays a character named Jim Baxter. Nothing is mentioned about his ethnicity and I’m assuming that we’re supposed to read his character as white.

Having white-passing people of color play “white” characters isn’t anything new, but the reason why it stood out to me even more in this film is because there’s an odd scene involving an Arab shop owner (who’s depicted as shady). He tells Denzel Washington’s character that his name is Jack. Washington chuckles, seemingly at the fact that an Arab man with a Middle Eastern accent is using a generic white name as a cover. Washington asks, “What’s your last name?” Jack says, “Aboud.” Washington seems to raise suspicion about him and looks at the Asian characters sitting in the back of the store (who are also depicted as shady). Washington then leaves, saying, “Salaam alaikoum.”

Ok, let’s unpack this.

First, it’s not unusual to meet Arab men with names like “Jack.” In fact, the late Arab American author who wrote the seminal book, “Reel Bad Arabs,” was named Jack Shaheen (his book is also a documentary). Second, I do think it’s peculiar how Mr. Aboud is portrayed in typical orientalist fashion: Bearded, darker skinned, heavy accent, deceptive, etc. Meanwhile, the co-lead of this film is played by Egyptian American actor Rami Malek. His character is white, not Arab, because Arab characters can only be stereotypes apparently. He speaks with an American accent and has an Anglo name, Jim Baxter. Could a person named Jim Baxter be Arab? Sure, but the film doesn’t see any purpose in making Jim an Arab. They could have cast Leonardo DiCaprio in the role and nothing would change about the character.

Washington saying “salaam alaikoum” is nothing unusual for anyone who has been following his filmography. Of course, he used this greeting fluently in Malcolm X (still his best performance in my opinion), but has also said it in Mo’ Better Blues and 2 Guns. At best, we can say the “salaam” acknowledges how familiar Washington’s character is with Muslims, including in the Black community. At worst, it invokes how policed Arab and Muslim neighborhoods are by the police, which would involve cops learning the language to infiltrate such communities.

In any case, the “salaam” further acknowledges that Jack is an Arab. Something in the narrative wants us to know that Jack is a foreigner. If we take the film’s twist into account, then maybe there’s some subversion or misdirection going on here, highlighting on the lesson that we should not jump to conclusions based on how people look. At the same time, the idea of making Rami Malek a three-dimensional character who just happens to be Arab was a missed opportunity here.

I recognize the limitations of this critique. I don’t think representation or visual diversity is enough. But I don’t see any reason why Rami’s character couldn’t have been named Gameel instead of Jim. I don’t think having an Arab character means the narrative or story has to always be about them being Arab. Race and ethnicity can be addressed in nuanced ways, even if it’s not overtly acknowledged.

What this highlights, for me, is that Hollywood’s imagination for Arab people is still limited. Either they are portrayed as terrorists and greedy tyrants (as we saw recently in Wonder Woman 1984) or they are exoticized on the other end of the Orientalist spectrum in cases like Aladdin. The Little Things, oddly enough, exemplifies how Hollywood cannot imagine a non-stereotypical Arab character despite having a lead protagonist who is played by an actor of Egyptian descent! Furthermore, the one character in the movie who is Arab gets portrayed as a stereotypical caricature.

Malek being able to pass as white gives him advantages over more visible people of color and allows him to escape stereotypical roles. Depicting him as a white man in a movie that already has a problematic scene (albeit brief) with a stereotypical Arab character does nothing but reinforce an assimilationalist ideal where people of color need to “shed off” their ethnicity to be “American.” In this case, for Arab actors to play nuanced and fully developed characters, they need to be white.

If white passing people of color can play white characters, why would they want to play characters of color?

Pakistani, Muslim, counselor, independent filmmaker, Star Wars geek, prequelist.