The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

The Art of War

Hollywood Juggles Audience Sensitivity With Financial Opportunity, Ethnic Profiling

But what has the potential to be a new beginning for the war film genre could turn out to be Hollywood simply repeating itself.

For decades, the war film has pitted good against evil, right against wrong in bloody battles on the big screen. Heroes and villains are easily distinguishable from one another, fighting in pronounced opposition. The American hero is typically bold, strong and chiseled while the villain is often foreign, mysterious and heavily accented.

Gorham Kindem, a communications studies professor at UNC, has researched Hollywood films and their roles in reinforcing the social stereotypes that foster this kind of foreign versus domestic cinematic conception.

In his study, Kindem examined whether satiric treatments of ethnic and racial prejudices, like those found in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles," would be more effective than dramas at combatting prejudice and racism.

"What we found is that no single film is likely to leave an impact," Kindem said. "But sustained reinforcement in films creates an impact."

Likewise, Margaret O'Connor, a professor in the Department of English who teaches film criticism, says she thinks it takes more subtle materials in multiple films to combat stereotypes.

"It's not going to be some blockbuster that changes our minds," O'Connor said. "I think it will be smaller moments in smaller films that will change things."

Kindem said he believes that America can't rely on Hollywood to change its perspective on war, terrorism and stereotypes. "I wouldn't look to Hollywood to do anything," he said. "Not everyone in Hollywood is motivated by money, but I hope that those primarily motivated by money will think of the implications of their films."

And in at least two cases, Hollywood is indeed thinking of such implications.

"Collateral Damage," a Warner Bros. film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, features a Colombian terrorist's attack on Los Angeles. The film was originally scheduled to to be released Oct. 5, but after the events of Sept. 11, Warner Bros. chose to pull all promotional materials and postpone the film until it thought the national mood was appropriate for the film's release.

Film trailers and previews for the movie's release were retrieved by Warner Bros. in hopes not to offend sensitive audiences. Even the film's Web site was taken off the internet until Nov. 14, when Warner Bros. decided the film would be appropriate for release in early February.

"I believe that in February, audiences will be ready to go to theaters to see movies like 'Collateral Damage,' where good triumphs over evil," stated Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros, in a recent press release.

But when considering a release date for "Black Hawk Down," Columbia Pictures took the opposite approach.

"Black Hawk Down" was originally scheduled to hit theaters much later in the year, but Columbia Pictures chose to move the release date up to January to capitalize on the public's desire to see stories of American valor on film.

"I do know that on 'Black Hawk Down' that they moved the release date up so they could take advantage of favorable public opinion that would occur for the picture," said Frank Capra Jr., president of Screen Gems Studios.

The makers of "Black Hawk Down" wanted to give the film a heightened sense of reality, so some of the actors were sent through military training at Fort Bragg.

"The filmmakers wanted the actors to be around people who were actually there (in Somalia) to make the film more realistic," said Jason Geffin of Columbia Pictures. "The current trend in these types of films is to send the actors through a sort of boot camp," he said.

But the infiltration of reality may become obtrusive as plans develop to turn September's terrorist attacks into an on-screen production.

"I've heard that people are looking at ways to depict the terrorist attack in some way," Capra said. "It certainly affected the country."

At UNC, a documentary about the Middle East and its involvement in the attack is already under way. "The documentary focuses on who was responsible for September 11 and implications that it wasn't the Arab world," said Kindem, director of the film.

"Al-Jazeera: An Arab Voice for Freedom or Demagoguery, The UNC Tour" focuses on a tour of the Arab news network Al-Jazeera that was given to UNC professors during the faculty trip to Qatar. Kindem said that during the tour, news producers at the network and some UNC faculty found themselves rethinking the idea that the events of Sept. 11 were caused by sources outside America.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

"The people at Al-Jazeera did not believe that Osama bin Laden or anyone in the Arab world was capable to pull off the attacks. They believed that it had to be an inside job," Kindem said. "Some faculty found themselves unable to believe that anyone in the Arab world could have pulled off the attacks on America," he said.

However, the trip to Qatar occurred before the bin Laden tapes were released, Kindem said, so at the time there was no evidence specifically linking him to the attacks.

"I think that some people's minds were changed after they saw the tapes," Kindem said. "You'd have to look past some pretty hard evidence to believe that bin Laden wasn't involved," he said.

Although bin Laden's actions are not representative of the Middle East in general, America will continue to see portrayals of Arabic villains and terrorists like in 1985's "The Jewel of the Nile" and 1994's "True Lies."

"Right now, there's a lot of talk of the profiling of young Islamic, Middle Eastern men, and I think we'll see that," Capra said. "We know that in Israel, and in most of America, Muslim extremists are pretty good targets for villains."

But there is hope that Hollywood will look past stereotypes and present Arabic people in equal light.

"As an industry, the movies have made an honest effort to purge itself of anti-Semitism and appalling images of African Americans," O'Connor said. "Now our definition of Semitic needs to include people of Arab descent and Muslims."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at