Developing a more complex characterization of the “enemy,” this visualization of an Iraqi torturer’s baby being killed by American bombs invites the viewer to sympathize with that man and consider his motives. The script here gives the torturer complex psychological traits. But it does not give him the most basic marker of identity—a name.

Point of view shot of the Iraqi as seen by his captive, Mark Wahlberg. In contrast, close-up and point of view shots are not given from the Iraqi’s torturer’s perspective.

Wahlberg during the torture scene is depicted in emotional close up.

At the end of the torture scene, Wahlberg has the chance to shoot his torturer but chooses not to. This scene’s emotional “punchline” thus recuperates the U.S. soldier-thief’s humanity so that narratively the torturer’s complex depiction gets left behind.

Ice Cube’s character did manual labor before the war...

...Mark Wahlberg’s had a white collar job...

...and Spike Jonze’s was a lower class “redneck.” The film generally displaces racist attitudes onto him.

In its use of Ice Cube, the film incorporates stereotypes of black athleticism. Here he destroys a helicopter by hitting it with a football strapped with explosives.

Ice Cube and the Arabs pray together. The discourse of the Other commonly shows people of color as reliant on mystical approaches to living, as opposed to rationality.



Exception that proves the rule

Significantly, at one point in Three Kings an Iraqi character is portrayed differently. This occurs in the scene in which Wahlberg is captured and tortured by Iraqi soldiers. The torturer’s character (played by Saïd Taghmaoui) indicates a contradiction within the film’s representational scheme. Despite the fact that he is torturing the U.S. soldier, Taghmaoui is presented as a victim of U.S. neocolonial oppression, a humanized character who does not fit into binary categories of good vs. bad Arab. Taghmaoui is given attractive psychological traits, such as sympathy and understanding. His dialogue presents unique insights into Arab-American relations. For example, he says:

What is the problem with Michael Jackson? … A black man make his skin white and his hair straight… Your sick fucking country make the black man hurt himself just like you hurt the Arabs and children over here.

In this statement, the dialogue equates U.S. racism with U.S. neocolonialism, a parallel that the rest of the film shies away from making, as I will explore below. Taghmaoui also speaks about a son he had who was killed by U.S. bombs. He asks Wahlberg to imagine how the American would feel if his own daughter were bombed. Both scenarios are visualized, inviting viewers to sympathize with the Iraqi. Thus the film situates this character as not just a victim or oppressor.

In the narrative, Taghmaoui as torturer functions in a way that is common in Hollywood scripts that deal with complex social contradictions or current political conflicts. The story often has characters who reject dominant U.S. social values yet are assigned a role that ultimately recuperates Western culture and, more specifically, hegemonic U.S. ideology. The film’s representation of the Iraqi torturer is surrounded by narrative paradoxes which contradict the explicitly critical nature of what he says. The script gives his character complex psychological traits, but it does not give him “the most basic marker of identity: a name.” As Shohat and Stam note, this is a common narrative strategy in Hollywood, where a name is often denied to “ethnic” characters, with the effect of limiting their humanization on screen(227).

During the scene, the visual style makes Wahlberg the figure whom viewers focus on since the action is presented from his point of view, with close-ups emphasizing his character’s emotional state. In contrast, close-up and point of view shots are not given Taghmaoui. The script and the visual style position the U.S. soldier as the character with whom the viewer can most easily identify. At the end of the scene, when Wahlberg is freed, he is given an option of revenge but will not shoot Taghmaoui, who just tortured him. Thus, the scene’s punchline is to recuperate the U.S. soldier-thief’s humanity so that narratively Taghmaoui’s complex depiction gets left behind. In this way, the scene’s “punctuation mark” of Wahlberg’s lifesaving act leaves viewers with less concern about the Arab’s humanity, thereby allowing the Arab much less subjectivity.

The torture scene functions then to reveal something important about the U.S. soldier-protagonist and how his character is affected by the complex identity of the Iraqi torturer. The importance of the scene in the script is to show the evolution of the American’s psychology; he must come to understand the human nature of Arabs in general so that he may complete his neocolonial “civilizing” mission. After Taghmaoui gives a critique of U.S. neocolonialism, Wahlberg gets the last word, which reinforces the seeming justice of his country’s military mission:

You invaded another country. You can’t do that … ‘cause it makes the world crazy. You gotta keep it stable … Too much bombing is crazy, but not saving Kuwait.

Despite the film’s critique of the Persian Gulf war, this statement shows how the protagonists still believe that the U.S. military is correct to invade Iraq. A closer look at military history would, in fact, reveal another picture of the origins of the 1991 war. As William Blum analyzes the build-up in his book, Rogue State, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was “encouraged by the United States and provoked by Washington’s close ally, Kuwait, itself; an invasion that gave the US all the pretext it needed to take action,” and that “saving Kuwait” actually meant restoring an undemocratic set of billionaires to power (Blum 160).

Ice Cube and the film’s use of African Americans

Hollywood often tries to soften the racial dichotomy of white/other by using actors/characters of color, especially when the film’s protagonist is a group. In Three Kings one of the group of thieving soldiers is African American, Chief Elgin, played by Ice Cube. Even though he is not white, as a U.S. soldier, Ice Cube’s character is allowed at least partial membership into the category of characters whom the film depicts in terms of “self,” constructed in opposition to the foreign non-whites. In a scene early in the film, Cube is angered by the word “dune coon” spoken by Spike Jonze, playing Conrad Vig, an uneducated white Southerner:

Cube: I don’t give a shit if he’s from Johannesburg, I don’t wanna hear ‘dune coon’ or ‘sand nigger’ from him or anyone else.

Jonze: The captain uses those terms.

Wahlberg: The point is that ‘towel head’ and ‘camel jockey’ are perfectly good substitutes.

Cube: Exactly.

Although this dialogue overtly uses irony to joke about substituting one form of racism for another, the explicit mention of race here narratively serves to differentiate Ice Cube’s character from the Arabs in the film. Cube agrees that racism against Arabs is okay as long as it does not draw on racism against African Americans. Such differentiation indicates an aspect of neocolonial discourse found in many Hollywood movies, “separating North American blacks from the demonology that would be directed to third world people” (quoted in Dyer 66).

Additionally, in this scene U.S. racist attitudes towards African Americans are spoken by a character presented as stupid, naïve, and lower class. Because the film has a relatively complex structure that appeals to educated, middle class viewers, the script here effectively dodges middle class racism, such as that which might be practiced by the Wahlberg character and spectators who are set up to identify with him.

Although Cube’s character is more complex than this, it still reinforces stereotypical and liberal discourses of blackness. In the film Cube comes from Detroit, a city known for its urban-center, working-class, black population, and he uses ungrammatical street slang. The script constructs him as lower class, a stereotype contrasted to Wahlberg, who is white. Both characters must be also read in terms of the actors’ extratextual images. Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg (or “Marky Mark”) both gained prominence as rap artists, which has lower class connotations. But in the film, Wahlberg, as white, is scripted as more middle class. For example, he is shown working in an office before the war wearing a suit and tie. Cube’s character, on the other hand, is shown working a manual labor job. In the film, Cube cannot transcend the common film image of the lower class black man.

In addition to his lower class standing, Cube is also presented as possessing greater athletic abilities than his white counterparts, as seen when he destroys a helicopter by hitting it with a football strapped with explosives. This echoes the U.S. cultural trope of blackness as athleticism, emphasizing the black body rather than the mind (Dyson 66). At the same time, Cube plays the most religious of the U.S. characters, relating to liberal discourse defining blackness as the center of spirituality and morality. He seems untouchable because of his spiritual nature, and in the film he is the only U.S. character that is not shot, killed, or tortured.

This mysterious “good luck” plays into discourses of the other in general and of African Americans in particular, seen culturally as romanticized, steeped in mystery that cannot be understood, reliant on mystical rather than logical means of living. As Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins point out, such a focus on mysterious powers “can be consistent with a view of the other as superstitious or irrational and might be responsible for contempt for the native [or non-white] mind” (91). All these discourses around race let viewers perceive the other as irreducible to the logic of the self. In Three Kings the script positions Ice Cube’s character at least partly as this other.

Discourses of realism

Although David O. Russell may have made claim to a project of producing an unconventional film in terms of content and style, as discussed earlier, this unconventionality does not create the kind of disruption that would place the film outside of the Hollywood mass market. Ideology in film works through integrating the viewer into certain “taken for granted” forms of style and discourse, and Three Kings is no different than any other Hollywood film in this respect. The film’s deviations in terms of visual style are limited to a few overblown scenes making use of distortion, slow motion, and special camera lenses. In particular, one much talked-about scene shows the path of a bullet as it enters a human body and was purportedly filmed inside a cadaver. Yet, in general, the visual style resembles that of a typical Hollywood action film.

Though the unconventionality of Three Kings is shallow, its narrative complexities denote its involvement in discourses of realism. Although the film may not entirely re-orient our perceptions of the Gulf War, its convoluted representations of otherness reveal an attempt to create images in opposition to the mainstream. Such an oppositional stance often accompanies discourses that make claims to realism, which have the goal of showing a “real” as opposed to a mainstream, “false” view. The visual style of the film similarly may have aimed to contribute to such realism (though unsuccessfully) since Russell said it lent the film “an out of control and real feeling.” In fact, most of the film does not depart from mainstream U.S. media images of the 1991 Gulf war, which villainized Saddam Hussein, portrayed the civilians as one-dimensional victims, and mainly supported the U.S. military mission (Shaw).

What is more disturbing, though, is any belief that fictional characters and stories can present some true reality. Wahneema Lubiano questions such a discourse of realism when she suggests that attempts to construct some filmic “reality” overlook the question of who judges what is real and how. Furthermore, she argues that realism in fiction establishes a false claim to truth and allows for surface chaos in a narrative that ultimately moves towards closure; this describes the structure of Three Kings. Hoping to present characters that are authentic due to their oppositionality ends up essentializing and homogenizing differences (Lubiano 98-111). Such an ideology also recalls the history of film documentary and its long ties to colonialism. For example, early colonial travel films which were “the heirs of a tradition of exhibitions of ‘real’ human objects” (Shohat and Stam 107).

If we understand how the film lays certain claims to being outside the Hollywood mainstream but is not particularly unconventional, that lets us understand its reception and meanings. Its limited unconventionality guarantees it will not be politically subversive in terms of the discourses and images which it presents. Films like Three Kings commonly have a commercial success because they have the potential to let viewers feel that they understand the world in a broad way and with this film are actively moving beyond their boundaries. In fact, such films reinforce mainstream ideologies. They end up limiting subversiveness by narratively limiting contestation. I would argue that these types of films are more ideologically dangerous than more conventional films and therefore call for closer examination to reveal their underlying assumptions and convoluted meanings.

New war, same old story

Obviously, U.S. ideology surrounding Arabs is not monolithic. President Bush, for example, certainly makes some distinction between different Arabic nations; his stake in oil companies means that he is allied with certain countries and leaders in the Middle East. Within the United States, there are many different organs of propaganda, each transmitting slightly different messages. However, it is impossible to deny that the popular media in the U.S. for the most part presents an oversimplified and largely negative view of Arabs, and that little else is available to the majority of Americans.

Today, as Bush’s political machine attempts to convince the American people that attacking Iraq once again is inevitable and necessary, the media recycles the same neocolonial discourses and representations of Arabs. We are told that it is impossible to know whether or not Saddam Hussein has “weapons of mass destruction,” and our mediated sources of information agree, telling us that the Arabic world is mysterious and can never be known, and that Arab leaders are evil and irrational. Events of the last year and a half have widened the gap between Arab and American, making it possible to advance a neocolonial theory about the need to control and dominate that unknown territory, more recently disguised as an ubiquitous “war on terrorism.”

Filmic representations of the Arab world have also remained largely the same. Since September 2001, a barrage of war films have flooded our screens, doing much to glorify military intervention. Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001), for example, portrays a war in an Arabic nation: the Somalian crisis. Similar to Three Kings, Black Hawk Down was partly marketed and received as depicting an alternative or unconventional view of the war; like Three Kings, the film tells the same old neocolonial tale. Both films rely on demonizing the Arabic leaders, offer no contextual information on a political struggle, and portray Arabs as one-dimensional, either good or evil, characters. As Monbiot writes of Black Hawk Down he aptly describes it as “the story the American people need to tell themselves… a battle between good and evil, civilization and barbarism” (par. 10-11). He further relates the film to the war on terrorism, during which crisis it was released:

What we are witnessing in both Black Hawk Down and the current war against terrorism is the creation of a new myth of nationhood. America is casting itself simultaneously as the world’s saviour and the world’s victim; . . . on a mission to deliver the world from evil. This myth contains incalculable dangers for everyone else on earth. (par. 14)

This is not a new myth. It began with the white man’s burden, and continues with George Bush’s bogus war. Perhaps the real work involved in winning over the American people to the new war on Iraq has already been done, since the media images of terrorism and the Arabic world have been drilled into our head since the colonial era. Three Kings contributes to the neocolonial struggle for perpetual international control, a battle in which film has always been a major weapon.

To works cited

To topPrint versionJC 46 Jump Cut home