copyright 2003, Jump
Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Three Kings: neocolonial
by Lila Kitaeff
Colonialism may be officially over, but its ghost lives on in U.S. political actions and cultural productions. This country’s administration has taken on as its “righteous duty” to intervene in other countries’ governments and policies. Such international intervention is, in fact, a less conscious governmental proclamation of an older colonial ideology, “the white man’s burden.” This ever present colonial ideal is not only a national governmental stance but is echoed in and validated by popular media.
One of the most consistently misunderstood and misrepresented peoples in the eyes of many Americans are members of the Arabic nations, a fact made painfully clear since September 2001. Popular media representations of Arabs have long been limited to simplistic narratives about good and evil characters, both desperately in need of U.S. intervention either in the form of aid or destruction. As Edward Saïd, a leading Palestinian-Western scholar puts it:
My use of the term “Arab” in this paper should be understood to refer to Arabic-speaking people and/or people tracing their heritage to an Arabic nation in the Middle East or North Africa. The League of Arab States currently includes Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Palestinian Territories, Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. Arabs are not a race, and they do not all share the same religion or political beliefs. However, it should be noted that people from other parts of the Middle East and/or those of the Muslim faith are often falsely identified as Arabs within the United States.
The last permissible racism here [in the United States]—and by permissible, I mean it’s okay publicly in the media and elsewhere—is to be racist against Arabs. You can say the most outrageous things in the most respectable magazines and newspapers and even on the air about Arabs, things you would never dare to say about any other ethnic or racial group. (Viswanathan 320)
The Arab American Institute notes,
In both popular culture and government policy, anti-Arab stereotypes since the 1970’s have affixed a stigma on Arab ethnicity in America… The Arab as villain has been a favorite scape-goat of American culture (par. 11).
In the 1980s and 90s the stereotype of Arab terrorists as generic “bad guys” rose to prominence in films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, such as Commando and True Lies. Many people in the United States have had only this kind of Arabic image readily at hand. The cultural association is so strong that the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 was immediately blamed on Arabic groups based on no other evidence than the stereotype of Arab as terrorist. Even reputable newspapers and magazines have done little to improve the image of Arabs since the press often focuses on the mysterious nature of Arab peoples and the chaos and evil of Arab governments (Saïd in Viswanathan 295-296).In the past, this view of the Arabic world as a dark and mysterious place has supported U.S. political and military intervention in the Mideast and Africa, either through direct U.S. military campaigns or its political and economic support of such campaigns; we have seen military action that the U.S. supported in recent times in Iraq, Somalia, and the Palestinian territories. Today we see the continuation of these governmental efforts in many of its actions and, ideologically, in the way it represents “the war on terrorism.” Now, with striking contemporary resonances, the Persian Gulf War of 1991 stands as a defining moment when both the U.S. government and many political commentators relied on Arab stereotypes to justify an unjustifiable war to the nation.
Today, since under the leadership of another President Bush, we have again attacked Iraq, this situation should prompt us to take another look at the first Gulf war, from which our current attack descends. At the time of this writing, late March 2003, the United States has been at war with Iraq for one week, after having threatened attack for several months. Unsupported by the majority of the world’s nations, including many citizens of the United States who have taken to the streets in massive protests, President Bush used war powers granted to him by the United States Congress. Bombing and ground fighting have taken place throughout the country of Iraq, the oilfields in the South have been “secured,” and U.S. and British troops are on their way to begin fighting in Baghdad. So far, the expected uprising against Saddam Hussein in Southern Iraq has not taken place and Iraqi resistance has been greater than the U.S. had claimed it would be, leaving no doubt that the war will be longer and bloodier than previously imagined. However, Bush insists that the United States will “fight for as long as it takes” to remove Hussein from power and liberate the Iraqi people.The Gulf War on film
Three Kings (Dir. David O. Russell, 1999) is a complex film exploring the ramifications of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It is a cultural production that self-consciously attempts to move away from these mainstream views of Arabs I discuss above. However, it still remains marked by colonial ideology. In my analysis, I will locate the film in a tradition of neocolonialism, one that separates the colonizer and the colonized into categories of identification centered around “self” and “other.” In film, these categories are created specifically through the cinematic apparatus. That is, Hollywood film “interpellates” its viewers or encourages their identification with characters by creating various “spectator positions.” These spectator positions are established not only by the storyline and the action, but also the visual trajectory of the film, which proceed in time through the main characters’ points of view and the narrative goal that the script sets up for the protagonists to reach. In this case, the narrative goal is what Ella Shohat and Robert Stam would call their “neocolonial mission.” The “neo-colonial mission,” as I will explore further below, is to intervene in the affairs of colonized nations, to use the logic of the colonizer to attempt to solve the problems of the colonized.
In Three Kings, viewer positions are set up to create a sense of identification (the viewer’s feeling a sense of “self”— I’m briefly in that person’s shoes) or to see characters or situations as safely “other.” Interestingly, such identification processes set up by the film are complicated by the tenuous scripting of a major black American character, who partially elicits spectatorial identification but in the narrative is simultaneously relegated to the category of other. Most important, the film’s very critique of U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf War ultimately remains limited to expression in neocolonial terms, and any critique is further undermined by the film’s use of mainstream U.S. cultural and cinematic themes.
Neocolonialism persists as an ideology and an economic practice that continues to enact and reinforce many of the tenets of colonialism. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam define neocolonialism as follows:
Shohat and Stam argue that as projects, cinema and imperialism have always been tied together since cinema’s origins. They further demonstrate how a submerged colonial presence exists in many contemporary films (100-131). In particular, like Three Kings, many films set in the Mideast, Africa, and Asia, often continue the colonial project into our neocolonial era.
Although direct colonial rule has largely come to an end, much of the world remains entangled in neocolonialism … a conjuncture in which direct political and military control has given way to abstract, semi-indirect, largely economic [and cultural] forms of control. (17)
Three Kings takes place just as the Gulf War has ended. The film centers around four U.S. soldiers—played by Spike Jonze, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and George Clooney—who find a map leading to Saddam Hussein’s hidden gold. During their search for the gold, the U.S. soldiers stumble upon a bunker holding Iraqi civilian prisoners. The four soldiers then shift the focus of their mission to rescue the prisoners, making their way to the Iranian border with Iraqi soldiers in pursuit. The U.S. army attempts to stop them, allowing the civilians to escape across the border only after Clooney’s character gives up the gold to his superiors.Three Kings is a remake of a WWII film, Kelly’s Heroes (dir. Brian G. Hutton, 1970). The original film starred Clint Eastwood as the leader of a group of U.S. soldiers in France who defied their superiors’ orders in order to steal a stash of Nazi gold hidden behind enemy lines. While hailed as a successful comic antiwar film, Kelly’s Heroes lacked the moral twist of Russell’s film. Interestingly, even though remakes are currently big business in Hollywood, Three Kings’ connection to its predecessor was barely mentioned in current marketing or critical reviews.
Non-oppositional critique of the Gulf WarIn general, Three Kings’ marketing and reception dwelt on its supposedly unconventional nature. By unconventional, I mean “oppositional” discourse and imagery in the sense of contrasting to those found in dominant cultural productions. Although I will argue that the film does not, in fact, deviate from a typical Hollywood film in its basic message and structure, Three Kings does occupy a somewhat tenuous position in terms of Hollywood-type unconventionality. At first glance, viewers might expect the film to be an action-packed adventure and war movie. The main actors are blockbuster action stars (with the exception of Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich and several “Beastie Boys” videos). And director Russell’s previous films, Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, were offbeat in their brand of dark comedy, if not particularly unconventional in form or plot.
Initially film reviewers considered the story original. They said this film had more to it than met the eye, that its message and structure differed from most Hollywood films. A typical review praised Three Kings for its “genre subversion, anarchic attitude and barbed political commentary… making cogent points about… America’s role as the world’s policeman.” This same reviewer even suggested that the film addressed “the amorality and lack of consistent principles in American foreign policy. No Hollywood film in memory has addressed such an issue” (McCarthy par. 4 and 18).
However, although Russell does make a certain social critique of the Gulf War, as I will explore below, it is based on mainstream rather than oppositional discourses. For example, he explained this as his goal:
Taking people’s perceptions of this war, and turning them on their head… all the assumptions that you had about this war need to be looked at and turned over, including the sense of satisfaction you had as a moral victor, as an American.
However, if one were to make an explanatory critique subverting mainstream perceptions of the Gulf War, one would have to take into account the struggle’s historical context and the economic and ideological interests behind U.S. intervention. Such an argument was made by Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert, for example, when they asserted that “the real reason for U.S. opposition to Iraqi occupation of Kuwait is… to keep Washington, Wall Street, and their allies in charge of setting oil prices” (par. 5). And as Chomsky and Albert also pointed out, the U.S. government also has an ideological interest in perpetuating militarism in order to maintain the status quo of military spending and interventionist foreign policy.
Three Kings does not offer this sort of explanatory critique. Instead, the film presents the protagonists as coming to a realization that the United States has failed to save Iraq and destroy Hussein’s regime. According to the film, the United States is mistaken not because it intervened in the Middle East but rather because it did not follow through in its mission to save the good Arabs and crush the bad Arabs, a mission perpetuating neocolonial ideals. The heroes of Three Kings, in terms of the film’s logic, right the wrongs of the United States by saving a small group of Iraqi civilians, thus reproducing “the [neo]colonialist structure of the heroes’ relation to the native… [to] sort out the problems of people who cannot sort things out for themselves” (Dyer 156).
Neocolonial themes and traditional cinematic themes
Neocolonial cinema encourages the spectator to identify with representations of the colonizing subject and, by partaking of the trajectory set up by the storyline, to posit the colonial project itself as desirable. For example, in the scene in which the U.S. soldier protagonists are shown first entering the village, the images largely present their point of view, inviting identification by literally allowing the spectator to see through their eyes [see fig. 1]. In this scene the Iraqi civilians are portrayed as dominated and submissive as they beg the Americans to stay and help them [see fig. 2]. Other Iraqis who want to fight seem incapable of acting on their own as they cry out, “The Americans are here. It’s okay to come out. We can fight Saddam!” Thus, all Iraqi civilians— those beaten down and those who are still resistant—are presented as entirely dependent on U.S. help.As Shohat and Stam put it, such a scene functions to “mobilize” spectatorial desire to participate in the narrative line about the protagonists’ successful “neo-colonial mission.” The mobilization of desire works in tandem with spectator positions. Just as the cinematic apparatus interpellates the viewer to identify with the characters and narrative, the desire for which the protagonists strive also becomes the viewer’s desire.
In its ties with other fictions, including novels, drama, and song lyrics, Three Kings integrates traditional U.S. cultural and cinematic themes, especially about the outlaw hero. The film also uses a common Hollywood script format for dealing with cultural crises, that of the “problem picture.” These script strategies further weaken the film’s critique of United States ideals. In terms of screenwriting, Robert Ray discusses narrative strategies common in Hollywood in which morally centered characters enact a drama against a background of contemporary social issues. This kind of script development is common in what Ray terms “problem pictures,” films that critique large social issues but ultimately have happy endings that belie those problems (147).
In films like these, the outlaw hero is a common character. Such a figure possesses his own moral code and works to “correct” socially unjust laws and authority figures (Ray 15). For example, as Richard Dyer describes the genre, in the Rambo movies that attempt to critique the Vietnam War, the protagonist Rambo is
In this way, Hollywood’s use of the outlaw hero as a solution to historical events distorts perceptions of those events as part of social history, that is, outside of their filmic portrayals (Ray 59-62).
doing the job… that the United States government should be doing. Thus he repeatedly upholds basic American values against the actuality of America” (Dyer 159-160).
At the beginning of Three Kings, the rebellious, disaffected protagonists have a mission, to find the gold, with a motive only of personal entrepreneurship. The script’s trajectory is to have them undergo a shift in moral sensibility. In the end, they abandon their racism against the Arabs as they gain new ethics, which now motivate them to save Iraqis whom they believe desperately need their aid. That the protagonists early on refuse to follow the orders of their superior officers exemplifies this theme of the outlaw hero [see fig. 3].
Even as they refuse military participation in order to quest for gold, in their rebellion the protagonists function as the script’s moral center, emphasizing a popular discourse of individual morality over societal wrongs. In Clooney’s first scene, for example, he argues with the commanding officer, claiming, “I don’t even know what we did in this war!” (Note to the reader: in this essay I refer to protagonists by actor’s rather than character’s name since actors’ race and nation form an important part of my argument.)Three Kings was largely marketed with Clooney’s name as the principal star, and his character is particularly emblematic of the outlaw hero. He is a member of the special forces, lending him a certain “cool” mystique among the younger U.S. protagonists, and is the one in charge of their mission. He is the main outlaw, and perhaps the one whom the audience is most inclined to follow. Therefore his “reform,” for he is the one who ultimately makes the decision to rescue the civilians, is in some ways the most important to spectator identification.
By having the protagonists not identify with their superior officers, the script sets up a narrative line immediately gratifying to viewers. Also, in social terms the film implies that U.S. moral injustices are faceless and institutional, caused by politicians and the military system. Injustice does not result from the actions of U.S. rebels and individualists such as these soldiers nor, by implication, from film spectators who identify with the film’s outlaws. In fact, in righting the wrongs of the United States, the protagonists as outlaw heroes provide the viewers with morally superior figures with whom to identify. Ideologically, the narrative trajectory of the outlaw heroes in this problem film, as described by Ray, facilely eclipses director Russell’s stated goal—to subvert “the sense of satisfaction you [the viewer] had as a moral victor, as an American.”
Moral progression in the character development
Three Kings has the protagonists grow ethically until they are the film’s moral center. In this way, the plot fits well into traditional liberal discourse, where moral growth is read as “victory.” Such a “moral twist” in Three Kings made reviewers laud the film as progressive. Yet this kind of narrative twist is hardly original. It is part of a narrative mechanism of irony well known to spectators and fitting within discourses of otherness; similar progressions within the protagonist’s conscience take place, for example, in such widely varying films as Dances with Wolves and Spies Like Us. The ironic mechanism functions in Three Kings’ script to demonstrate how the protagonists’ moral shift is a victory, yet by the script focusing on that victory, it somehow compensates for the failures of the war itself. In this way, the narrative trajectory allows viewers to accept that larger social immorality will remain unchanged.In addition, as Sharon Willis argues, this use of irony relies on creating a sense of distance between spectator and film narrative that ultimately lessens any sense that the storyline is connected to social reality. Audience investment in films that employ ironic distance, Willis notes, involves a certain trust in the “ironic cool” of the film “to manage our reaction, to catch us up and bring us back laughing” (152).
At several points, the film seems to be engaged in social critique, but it is only drawing our attention to the war’s minor contradictions without confronting major issues. For example, when the protagonists break into an Iraqi bunker, they find Iraqi soldiers with stockpiles of top brand stereos and U.S. exercise machines in rooms just down the hall from imprisoned civilians. In this way, the film shows equal greed on both sides.
But its critique of the larger political and institutional aspects of the war is shallow. For example, in the film’s opening scene, as Wahlberg shoots an Iraqi soldier seemingly out of mere confusion, the camera focuses on Wahlberg’s look of horror as he watches the Iraqi die. The message here is that “war is wrong” without the film’s going into the specifics of the institutional and historical framework of U.S. military engagement in Iraq.
of the other
In the way that they move from thievery to self-sacrifice,
the protagonists experience a moral shift that sets up the completion of their
neocolonial mission; they need to learn not to see the Arabs as other. Yet even
in its attempt to portray understanding of the other, the film does not escape
the trap of the neocolonial self/other mechanism. The script still collapses
the other into the logic of the self. Throughout most of Three Kings,
the Arabs are portrayed in binary representations as oversimplified good and
bad characters. The Iraqi soldiers in the film are brutal, cowardly, immoral,
and childishly dependent on Saddam Hussein, who is characterized as embodying
pure evil. The Iraqi civilians are sharply delineated from the Iraqi soldiers
and are depicted as innocent, non-military women, children, and prisoners.
In the way that they move from thievery to self-sacrifice, the protagonists experience a moral shift that sets up the completion of their neocolonial mission; they need to learn not to see the Arabs as other. Yet even in its attempt to portray understanding of the other, the film does not escape the trap of the neocolonial self/other mechanism. The script still collapses the other into the logic of the self. Throughout most of Three Kings, the Arabs are portrayed in binary representations as oversimplified good and bad characters. The Iraqi soldiers in the film are brutal, cowardly, immoral, and childishly dependent on Saddam Hussein, who is characterized as embodying pure evil. The Iraqi civilians are sharply delineated from the Iraqi soldiers and are depicted as innocent, non-military women, children, and prisoners.
A good example of these oversimplified binary characterizations occurs in the climactic scene in which the protagonists make their seemingly difficult decision to complicate their own mission of collecting the gold in order to save a group of Iraqi civilians. On the insistence of the U.S. protagonists, the Iraqi soldiers bring several civilian prisoners out of the bunker while the U.S. soldiers retrieve the gold. Then the Iraqi soldiers, attempting to restore order among the remaining civilians, are shown beating a small child with her arm in a cast [see fig. 4] When the prisoners are brought out, as a woman breaks away from the soldiers and runs to greet her bound and gagged husband, an Iraqi soldier wearing dark sunglasses pulls the woman away and coldly and quickly shoots her in the head. The young child runs and weeps over her mother’s dead body.
In this scene, the Iraqi soldiers are marked as so bad and the civilians as so good, they form an obvious caricature. Shooting an innocent woman attempting to greet her imprisoned husband in front of their injured child results in an over-the-top cliché of good vs. evil. Discussing U.S. colonial cinematic representations, Shohat and Stam have found similar binary representations of the other in the Western, where different tribes of Indians become classified as good or bad Indians. Shohat and Stam further argue that such a binarism “persists… even in revisionist, ‘pro-Indian’ [or ‘pro-Arab’] films” (67). Thus in the same way that a film like Dances With Wolves, which attempts to show a sympathetic and realistic view of Indians, still sets up the binarism of good/bad Indian, so does Three Kings fail to escape the “colonial splitting of good/bad natives” still present in neocolonial films (67).
This type of representation shows how neocolonial ideology rarely imagines the other apart from the dichotomy of good, noble, and idealized, or bad, savage, and villainized. In the way such ideological tropes work themselves out in Three Kings, the Iraqi civilians play a part assigned to them that limits them to being victims. Their identities are defined in opposition to Iraqi villainy and in a relation of (inferior) helplessness to the U.S. soldiers. Iraqis are not depicted in terms of their own subjectivity.
Even when the Iraqi characters gain some power so as to escape a victimized position, their empowerment comes about only on the colonizer’s terms. They can only demand that the U.S. soldiers help them escape, referencing the same colonial discourse of the natives’ “inbred dependency on the leadership of White Europeans [or Americans]” (Shohat and Stam 140). Thus although the film depicts Iraqi soldiers as “bad guys” and Iraqi civilians as “good guys,” the narrative reduces both to “other.” The script’s attempt to “humanize” Iraqi civilians does not grant them a chance to present a local perspective on the war or to lay claim, in the trajectory of narrative identificatory positions, to the category of self.The 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:
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 [see fig. 5]. Thus the film situates this character as not just a victim or oppressor.
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 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 [see figs. 6 and 7]. 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 [see fig. 8].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, much less subjectivity.
The torture scene functions then to reveal something important about the U.S. soldier-protagonist and how his Iraqi torturer’s complex identity affected him. 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
Wahlberg: The point is that
‘towel head’ and ‘camel jockey’ are perfectly good substitutes.
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 o.k. 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 [see fig. 9]. Cube’s
character, on the other hand, is shown working a manual labor job [see fig.
10]. In the film, Cube cannot transcend the common film image of the lower class
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 [see fig. 11]. 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,
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.
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 o.k. 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 [see fig. 9]. Cube’s character, on the other hand, is shown working a manual labor job [see fig. 10]. 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 [see fig. 11]. 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 [see fig. 12]. 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 [see fig. 13]. 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 may have similarly 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 storyObviously, 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.
Albert, Michael, Noam Chomsky.
“Gulf War Pullout.” Z Magazine Feb. 1991. 17 Apr. 2001.
Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.
Black Hawk Down. Dir. Ridley Scott. Performances by Ewan McGregor and Sam Shepard. Sony Pictures, 2001.
Blum, William. Rogue State. London: Led Books, 2002.
Bordwell, David, Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
Collins, Jane L., Catherine A. Lutz. Reading National Geographic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Dyer, Richard. White. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Dyson, Michael Eric. Reflecting Black. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Lubiano, Wahneema. “But Compared to What?” Representing Blackness. Ed. Valerie Smith. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Maynard, Kevin. “Three Kings (Review).” Mr. Showbiz 1999. 8 May 2001. Wysiwyg://first_window.21/http://mrshowbiz.movies/reviews/ThreeKings_1999/review.html.
McCarthy, Todd. “Three Kings (Review).” Variety 27 Sep. 1999. 8 May 2001. http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m1312/6_376/56002641/print.jhtml.
Monbiot, George. “Both Savior and Victim.” The Guardian, 29 Jan. 2002. http://www.zmag.org/content/TerrorWar/monbiot_blackhawk_down.cfm.
Ray, Robert B. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Russell, David O. “Director’s Commentary on Three Kings.” DVD Special Feature.
Samhan, Helen. “Arab Americans.” Arab American Institute 2002. 6 March 2003. http://www.aaiusa.org/definition.htm
Shaw, David. “An Antiseptic
War?: A Study of Images from the Persian Gulf.” Visual Communication
Quarterly. Spring 1995.
Shohat, Ella, Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Three Kings. Dir. David O. Russell. Performances by George Clooney, Ice Cube, and Mark Wahlberg. Warner Bros., 1999.
Viswanathan, Gauri. Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward Saïd. New York: Pantheon Books, 2001.
Willis, Sharon. High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
To topJC 46 JC 46 print versionJump Cut home