By Winty Singh. Based in California, Winty Singh is a Social Justice Fellow at the Sikh Coalition.
The Oscars is the most celebrated film event of the year and the film that has brought the most acclaim and controversy leading into these awards has been American Sniper.
Nominated tonight for the “Best Picture,” the film is based on the autobiography of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who is celebrated as the most effective sniper in U.S. military history. For all the praise and box office success that American Sniper has received, the “Best Picture” conversation tonight will neglect the necessary dialogue about how films like this play a deeply problematic role in the misguided perception of minority communities.
Notwithstanding well-debated issues about the war in Iraq, the film has had its share of specific criticism, particularly the presentation of a sanitized version of Kyle’s own memoir — one that de-emphasizes his lack of regret for killing and the biases Kyle allegedly held towards Iraqis and Muslims. Portraying Kyle as an archetypal “western” hero, the film conveniently leaves out Kyle’s deep rooted biases and instead pushes an “us-versus-them” narrative that has significant impact on the way the broader American public views ethnic communities at home and abroad.
The opening scene shows Kyle shooting a young Iraqi boy carrying a grenade meant for American soldiers, and juxtaposes this with Kyle’s training as a hunter when he was a child. Killing the Iraqi child was likened to hunting prey. Whether the child is the enemy or not, the message is clear: we’re at war with everybody “over there.”
American Sniper continues with this theme throughout the movie, offering a distorted view of the conflict in Iraq that is bereft of nuance. All of the Iraqis filmed are cast as the enemy, posing a threat to American soldiers, while little effort is made to show innocent civilians. As a turban-wearing Sikh with a full beard and brown skin, I immediately felt a sense of vulnerability from this depiction as I watched this film in the movie theater. I am well aware that members of my own Sikh community are often verbally and physically assaulted by those who associate my appearance with terrorists and extremists, and thus I felt a large sense of unease and discomfort with the depiction of those with brown skin, and the potential reaction from others that the film might expose in the theater afterwards. Would I be called a “terrorist” or “raghead,” or worse? The “other” is deemed as “savage” from start to finish, while Kyle is portrayed as the righteous hero.
This depiction is of course significant, as it exposes the cultural issues faced by many ethnic communities in America’s post-9/11 environment. American Sniper heightens the racism and Islamophobia that persists in our society, validating attitudes that see Muslims, Arabs and those of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent as people worthy of scorn and as targets of violence. Not surprisingly, and consistent with my own fears when watching the film, some of the public reactions to the film have been incredibly threatening.
(Photo source: Raw Story)
These violent epithets are of course not unique to American Sniper, nor are they limited to the Muslim American community. Indeed, innocent Muslims become implicated even by America’s leaders in response to terrorist activity abroad. In just the past month we have witnessed state representatives in California and Texas publicly make bigoted remarks about Islam, while hate motivated acts of violence have spiked throughout the United States in recent weeks. These actions, motivated by ignorance and misguided hate are absolutely not helped by films that propel the simplistic blanket notion that “we’re all the enemy.”
American Sniper is certainly a riveting film that has a legitimate story to tell. The stories of our soldiers — their heroism, sacrifices, trials and tribulations abroad and at home — are ones that need to be told and heard. However, the modified version of the truth that the film presents, and what is disregarded by the film is important to note. When we do not honor the full truth of these stories, or when we do not recognize our own biases in the telling of these stories, we reinforce negative stereotypes that can only do more harm than good. More than “Best Picture,” what will be lost during tonight’s pomp, circumstance and applause is the problematic perceptions that American Sniper has exposed in American culture.
Based in California, Winty Singh is a Social Justice Fellow at the Sikh Coalition.