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Daily Reads: Muslim Actors on Hollywood’s Terrorist Typecasting, Wyatt Cenac and Being the Only One In The Room, and More

Daily Reads: Muslim Actors on Hollywood's Terrorist Typecasting, Wyatt Cenac and Being the Only One In The Room, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Seven Muslim-American Actors on Hollywood’s Terrorist Typecasting. 
In its relatively short history, if there’s anything Hollywood is consistently good at, it’s racist typecasting. Hollywood often relies on cultural stereotypes to populate their frames so as not to spend time on nuanced characterizations. Over at GQ, author Jon Ronson profiles seven Muslim-American actors on their experiences in the Hollywood typecasting machine, and what it’s like to play a terrorist.

The right-wing action hero gave Maz Jobrani hope. This was 2001. Maz had been trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood for three years, but things were going badly for him. He was earning peanuts as an assistant at an advertising agency. But then his agent telephoned: Did Maz want to play a terrorist in a Chuck Norris movie? So Maz read the screenplay for “The President’s Man: A Line in the Sand,” and he found within it a moment of promising subtlety. “Chuck Norris plays a professor of Middle Eastern studies,” Maz tells me. We’re sitting in a coffee shop in Westwood, Los Angeles. Maz is a goateed man in his early forties who was born in Tehran but moved with his family to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was 6. “There’s a scene where he’s talking to his students about Afghanistan. One of the students raises his hand and says something like, ‘Uh, professor, they’re all fanatics, so why don’t we just kill them all?’ And the Chuck Norris character goes, ‘Now, now. They’re not all bad.’ And I thought, ‘Wow! A nuance!'” The nuance gave Maz hope. Did this mean they’d allow him to make his character nuanced? Maz was aware that fixating on this one line might have been self-deluding, like a drowning man clutching driftwood in a hurricane. But he agreed to take the part. Then, at the wardrobe fitting, they handed him his turban. “I said, ‘Whoa, whoa! No! Afghans in America don’t wear turbans. Plus, this guy’s a terrorist. He’s not going to draw attention to himself. You tell the producers I want to bring authenticity to this character.’ The wardrobe supervisor replied, ‘All right, all right, I’ll talk to them.'” The message came back from Chuck Norris’s people that the turban was mandatory. And then came Maz’s death. It was the one thing he’d been excited about, because the script alluded to a short fight immediately preceding it. Hand-to-hand combat with Chuck Norris! “But on the day of the scene,” Maz says, “Chuck Norris told his son, who was the director, ‘Oh, I’ll just take a gun and I’ll shoot him.’ Oh, great! I don’t even get a fight!” “So how exactly did you get shot?” I ask Maz. “Okay, so I’m about to set off a bomb at a refinery,” he replies. “Chuck Norris runs in. I run away, because I’m scared. He gets behind the computer and starts dismantling the bomb, because he’s a genius. I come running back in carrying an Uzi. And I try to shoot him. But he takes out his gun and shoots me.” Maz shrugs. “I start to yell, ‘Allah—’ Bang! I’m down. I don’t even get ‘Allahu Akbar!’ out. It was horrible, man.” Maz shakes his head at the memory. It was humiliating. Actually, it was worse than humiliating — it was a harbinger. Maz understood, as he lay dead in that refinery, that Hollywood didn’t want him to be an actor. Hollywood wanted him to be a caricature. “I started acting in junior high,” he says. “I was in ‘Guys and Dolls.’ I was Stanley Kowalski. In my head, before coming to Hollywood, I thought, ‘I can play anything.'” But instead he’d become the latest iteration in Hollywood’s long history of racist casting, reducing his religion and culture to a bunch of villainous, cartoonish psychopaths. He knew he had to get out.

2. On Wyatt Cenac, “Key & Peele,” and Being the Only One in the Room. 
On a most recent episode of Marc Maron’s podcast “WTF,” guest Wyatt Cenac expressed misgivings about his tenure at “The Daily Show,” and the various issues and burdens of being the only black man in an all-white writers room. Cenac discusses the difficulties of being the one minority representative and how it often led to conflict and strife. NPR’s Gene Demby writes about being The Only One In The Room and how it can get in the way of true diversity.

The Stewart-Cenac exchange illustrates what those of us who are often The Only One In The Room tend to know: It sucks. But it turns out that being The Only One isn’t simply burdensome and annoying on an individual level. There’s evidence that when people feel like they’re The Only One in a group, even a group that professes to care about diversity in its ranks, it actually gets in the way of everything said diversity was supposed to achieve in the first place. Not long ago, I spoke to Scott Page, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies how people interact in teams and organizations. His work on a mathematical formula to show how greater diversity makes organizations more effective has been explored in “The New York Times.” Page told me that while there’s been a lot of conversation lately about increasing the numbers of non-white, non-male people in various companies and sectors, it’s left open the question of how many folks those organizations are supposed to be aiming for. Is one enough? Is 10 too many? Can you fiddle the dials to calibrate some sort of ideal workplace diversity score? Page says it all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you simply want more women in the room, that’s easy enough. Hire a woman and stick her at a desk. Your room has, indeed, become more diverse, numerically speaking. Time for happy hour. But if what you’re going for is bringing new perspectives into your organization, and getting people to actually think differently and come up with new ideas, then a different calculus is needed. “One question you can ask is how many people of a particular group have to be in a room for them to speak,” Page said. That is, having a woman in a room doesn’t affect a whole lot if she doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up. And while he has found that the presence of just one member of a minority group in a room can positively influence the rest of the group to be more cognizant of their own language and behavior, that’s different from actually hearing out that person’s ideas.

3. At 79, Woody Allen Says There’s Still Time To Do His Best Work. 
Woody Allen’s 46th film “Irrational Man” recently opened in theaters to deeply mixed reviews, but Woody Allen himself shows no signs of stopping, fully committing to his one movie per year process. Over at NPR, Sam Fragoso sat down with Woody for over an hour to discuss his career, his views on humanity, and whether or not people approach his work differently now than before.

What’s your problem with people?

I think some of them are wonderful, but they are so many of them that are not. I was one of the few guys rooting for the comet to hit the Earth. Statistically, more people that deserved to go would go.

Would you consider yourself a good person? 

I would consider myself… decent as I got older. When I was younger I was less sensitive, in my 20s. But as I got older and began to see how difficult life was for everybody, I had more compassion for other people. I tried to act nicer, more decent, more honorable. I couldn’t always do it. When I was in my 20s, even in my early 30s, I didn’t care about other people that much. I was selfish and I was ambitious and insensitive to the women that I dated. Not cruel or nasty, but not sufficiently sensitive. 

You viewed women as temporary fixtures? 

Yes, temporary, but as I got older and they were humans suffering like I was … I changed. I learned empathy over the years.

4. Trevor Noah, the New “Daily Show,” and Offensive Comedy. 
Jon Stewart will leave “The Daily Show” in one week’s time and South African comedian Trevor Noah will take over the desk. Noah will necessarily have big shoes to fill and it’s still too early to tell what his version of “The Daily Show” will look like, but we can get a sense of Noah and his perspective on comedy. Salon’s Sonia Saraiya reports on Noah and his comedy from the Television Critics Association. 

Onstage, Noah demonstrated both his strengths and his weaknesses in the hourlong set that mostly told stories from his short life as an American and the peculiar nature of air travel. At first, both topics seemed a little precious — airports are such a tired canard of comedy. But late in the set, Noah offered a clue to his own fascination with the topic. He’s the first person in his family to have ever flown on a plane, and as a professional comedian, he’s now constantly on the move. And his comedy was not so much about how airline seats don’t recline in the right way or that the food isn’t particularly good — it instead revealed a constant well of curiosity and observation on how people see him, how people see each other, and indeed, how he sees others, too. And it is a perspective that does not — cannot — ignore race. He implicitly rejects the idea of a colorblind world, and with it, dabbles in humor that bordered on the offensive. His incredible vocal ability allows him to drop in and out of accents with apparently no effort at all; and accents, as we have recently learned, can get you in some trouble. Onstage, a tossed-off concentration camp remark comparing airline security to a prison camp got more groans than laughs, and a section toward the end where he mashed together Mexican Jedi, fake-and-real Arabic, and the healing power of airport security ruffled my own feathers. “I don’t strive to be offensive,” Noah said. But, he added, “Any joke can be seen as offensive by anyone. Anyone can feel offended by an impression or not.” The key, he said to me, is to find “the most honest way of telling a joke.”

5. Matt Zoller Seitz on “Mission: Impossible 
— Rogue Nation”. The fifth “Mission: Impossible” film enters theaters tomorrow and it has already garnered plenty of critical acclaim for its beautiful action sequences and Cruise’s physical commitment. Over at RogerEbert.com, editor Matt Zoller Seitz reviews the film and praises Cruise’s particular action star skills.

The Tom Cruise-ist moment in the history of Tom Cruise films was the one in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” where Tom Cruise’s super-agent escaped a 9/11 style bombing of the Kremlin and a false arrest as the main suspect and reunited with his commanding officer and said he was pretty sure he spotted the real bomber while sneaking around the Kremlin, then grabbed a pen and in five seconds drew a sketch on his palm that looked exactly like the guy. You believed it, of course, because it was Tom Cruise doing the drawing. If American films have proved anything, it’s that Tom Cruise is The Best: at pool, at flying jets, at mixing cocktails, at racing cars, at building an airtight legal case against brutal Marine colonels and southern gangsters, at whipping sexist bros into a frenzy, at representing football players in contract negotiations, at defending Earth against invasion by extra-dimensional monsters and, in the “Mission: Impossible” series, at battling heavily armed bad guys while running and jumping and fighting and driving and hacking and playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the violin if need be. I’m going to call him Tom Cruise during the rest of this review of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” because even though his character has a name, Ethan Hunt, it is really Tom Cruise who makes his entrance clambering over a hill and exhorting his lovable tech guy Benji (Simon Pegg) to use his hacking skill to open the door of a cargo transport plane that’s about to take off with a belly full of nukes stolen by Chechnyan separatists or something, I don’t know who they are, it doesn’t matter, Tom Cruise is running, arms and legs pumping, hair flying, and holy mother of moley he’s climbing onto the top of the plane and hanging to its underbelly as it takes off, with his bare hands!

6. The Death of The Dissolve (and The Precarious State of Film Criticism). 
The Dissolve closed a little under a month ago and everyone is still reeling from the loss of one of the best film publications on the Internet. Though the issue of its death and the state of film criticism has become its own kind of beaten dead horse, but we at Criticwire thought it best to run one more piece on it from a regular Dissolve contributor. Random Nerds’ Charles Bramesco waxes poetic about his last day at The Dissolve and how young film critics move forward from here.

By anyone’s account, The Dissolve did everything right. They started with an admirable stable of staff writers, expatriate critics from The A.V. Club looking to set off on their own. Managing Editor Genevieve Koski upheld a rigorous standard for editorial quality, editors Scott Tobias and Tasha Robinson routinely spun the piles of hot garbage I dumped in their inboxes into well-organized, lucid gold, and the other staffers (one of whom you may recognize from around these parts) churned out insightful copy at breakneck speed. The Dissolve ran pieces that you wouldn’t find elsewhere on the internet, whether that meant a unique look at the day’s blockbusters or an exploration into Jean-Claude Van Damme’s engagement with the Hong Kong New Wave in the late ’90s. Best of all, they did it all honestly. The Dissolve never resorted to the sort of dick-flicking headlines that con readers into clicking on what is, at best, a fraction of a complete article. As a regular contributor to the daily news section, I was told that The Dissolve was not in the business of reporting rumors as fact. And they never, ever ran pro bono work; while I was getting my start as a two-days-a-week intern, I offered to come in during the rest of the week free of charge (mostly to stave off my own boredom) and Keith told me flatly, “I appreciate the gesture, but we don’t do that here.” In an age where “Entertainment Weekly” rewards “community contributors” with “prestige,” The Dissolve dared to exchange money for publishable writing, a concept that seems more distant with every passing day. And they lost.

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