Bad Guy Stereotypes Face PC Pressure
NEW YORK – Godless communists, Middle Eastern terrorists and Colombian drug lords have long wreaked havoc on American heroes of the silver screen.
But these days, the heat in Hollywood is coming from activist groups who don't want their respective ethnic group portrayed as the enemy.
"We're living in times where it's definitely much harder for there to be a bad guy that's defined in terms of ethnic characteristics," said Ray Greene, author of Hollywood Migraine: The Inside Story of a Decade in Film.
In Collateral Damage, currently playing in theaters, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a firefighter whose wife and son are killed by a Colombian rebel. Seeking vengeance, the he-man hero tries to track down his foe, and in the process kills countless Colombian "bad guys."
But Schwarzenegger's character is no hero to the Rev. Brian Jordan, a Franciscan priest who ministers to workers at Ground Zero.
"It's discriminatory against Colombians," Jordan said at a recent press conference, surrounded by professionals and politicians of Colombian descent. "The sins of the few should not be inflicted on the rest."
Greene conceded some groups are stereotyped on the big screen, but noted the actions of cinematic evildoers are clearly not representative of an entire ethnic group. As a result, he said, the portrayals should be taken in stride.
"It's a fact that Colombians don't get to see themselves in American movies in any other context than drug dealers. But it's also a fact that Colombia is a huge exporter of drugs to the U.S.," said Greene. "There is a majority consensus that drugs are an enemy — so that enemy has to have a face."
Black Hawk Down, another current hit, generated its own controversy from critics upset with the portrayal of Somalis in the film. The film recounts the 1993 mission by U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force operators to capture senior aides to a top warlord in Somalia.
Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, said the film characterizes Somalis as lacking any human emotion.
"They are depicted as beasts and savages running around, killing whoever they can make contact with," he told Fox News. He called the film a "psychological setback" to the group's efforts to show that the Somali community supports anti-terror efforts.
Several groups called for a boycott of the film. Yet it topped the box office during its opening weekend, and earned several Oscar nods, including one for Best Director for Ridley Scott.
Mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer told Fox News he felt political correctness drove the racism charges aimed at his film. "I mean, a lot of people don't like our military operations around the world," he said. "And it so happens it's a black nation. And they went after us for it."
Greene said the real problem is that movie producers often settle for juvenile ideas about good and evil.
"Movies are built on simplification, and so if they're dealing with a complicated issue that has an ethnic angle to it, they are going to get it wrong, and probably present it insensitively."
Behind Enemy Lines, another recent military flick, focuses on a different ethnic bad guy. This time it's a brooding, chain-smoking Serb, complete with exaggerated Eastern European accent, who pursues spunky blond American Navy pilot Owen Wilson behind enemy lines.
Greene points out that "snarly white Russian men" were the fallback enemy during the Cold War, and it wasn't an issue because they weren't defined ethnically. Now, the enemy is not so easily defined, even though America is at war.
So who can safely be cast to play the bad guy in 2002 without causing an uproar?
"White corporate males in the wake of the Enron scandal seem like a pretty good bet," said Greene. "You aren't going to see Fortune 500 guys boycotting in front of a theater."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.