The mark 9/11 left on Hollywood and American culture

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DUBAI: Through a TV screen shortly after 9 a.m. on the US east coast on a Tuesday morning, Americans may have suffered their greatest trauma. It was then that the second plane crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City, a moment steeped in public consciousness forever, a moment that would shape culture in all its facets.

Through these television screens, other dark images that would resonate in film and culture followed. There was the falling man, leaping from the building to escape the smoke and flames.

General view of the World Trade Center Memorial in New York on February 26, 2021 (File / AFP)

There were the towers falling on their own, collapsing on themselves like in grief. There was smoke and debris sweeping through lower Manhattan, gray ash clinging to everything – the streets, the police cars, even the survivors themselves.

Part of the reason these images persist so strongly, and part of the reason these wounds never fully healed, is the lack of reason, of purpose, of narrative embedded in them. No matter how many questions the horrific events of September 11 raised, there were no easy-to-find explanations on that day, nor satisfactory on the following days.


Kristina Hollywood and her daughter Allyson attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of September 11 at a memorial site after the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. (File / AFP)

The answers were what Americans needed. The answers are what pop culture has provided them with. More than anything else, the key to success in the world of film and television is how well the artwork provided the right framework for reflection, often the more heartwarming, the better.

In the months following the attacks, the most popular films provided these answers in the most satisfying way, if not more generally. Audiences flocked to the opening screenings of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”, finding solace in a world in which good and evil are clearly defined, in stark contrast, and in which purity. from the right side of the mind can overcome anything. They also discovered this in the first Harry Potter film, “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” in which love and unity can defeat an evil and secretly invading force.


The family of Flight 93 victim CC Lyle arrive at the premiere of “United 93” during the fifth annual Tribeca Film Festival at the Ziegfeld Theater on April 25, 2006 in New York City. (File / AFP)

Applying this narrative to the real world, however, is when America’s need for answers brought out its darkest impulses. Some in America, including those at the top, quickly defined real evil as the other Arab and Muslim, a narrative that was not born on the morning of 9/11, simply refocused and sharpened.

As a result of that fateful day, Arabs across the country were the targets of hate crimes and Islamophobia became practically acceptable mainstream discourse. America’s need for a real-world-inspired villain on screen has led to the rise of the Muslim terrorist, including in popular TV shows such as “24” and “Homeland.”

The nuance and subjective perspective have been removed from most of the characters in the region, a trend that continues to this day in many movies and TV series, as “London Has Fallen” and the Jack Ryan films repeat the same. tropes with only cosmetic enhancements.

For Arab actors, the post-September 11 world has become both a land of opportunity and sorrow. A segment from the 2008 film “AmericanEast”, directed by Egyptian-American filmmaker Hesham Issawi, clearly portrays this experience.

In the film, which portrays various Arab immigrants trying to assimilate into American culture, a character named Omar enjoys nascent success as an actor. His most successful role to date was that of a Muslim extremist terrorizing the United States, and his hopes of being able to turn that success into a wide range of roles were quickly dashed.


Janice Ryan points a finger as she finds her friend’s name at the World Trade Center memorial in New York on February 26, 2021. (File / AFP)

In one scene, Omar is cast for a starring role in a television series as a doctor who happens to be a Muslim. When he arrives on set, however, he discovers that the role has been cut and that he has been reclassified as a Muslim terrorist. When he tries to find humanity in the character, the exasperated filmmakers tell him, “He’s a terrorist. He is full of hate. That’s all you have to play.

Unjustly, Omar is forced to choose between following his dream and dehumanizing himself and his people, a choice many real actors have made under more desperate circumstances. Worse yet, Arabs in the United States and abroad have not found their faces reflected in the media, which continues to portray characters devoid of core three-dimensional values ​​and humanity.


Members of the United States Coast Guard pay tribute to veterans killed in the 9/11 attacks at the Ground Zero Memorial on November 11, 2020 in New York City. (File / AFP)

During those same years, films depicting actual events surrounding September 11 and the wars started in its name were often met with disinterest. Even when a film about the Iraq War won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2009, Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”, it was the lowest grossing film to ever receive that honor, signaling that even the award the most prestigious in the world of cinema was not enough to permeate reflection on these events in the cultural psyche.

What the world needed were no more questions; he was screaming for answers. And if there’s one truism moviegoers can trust, it’s that a hero can provide all the answers.

It was the idea of ​​unbridled heroism that led Jack Bauer in “24” to become a cultural icon on television in the early 2000s, allowing people to enjoy a show that portrayed events similar to those. of September 11 because in the center was a man. who had it all figured out, knew why it was happening and how he would stop it.

More importantly, the post 9/11 cinematic landscape saw the rise of the superhero genre, which hadn’t really made a foothold in the past outside of Superman and Batman, but from 2002 onwards. ” Spider-Man, “has become the dominant genre in the medium, a distinction he still holds.

Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” films and Zack Snyder’s “Superman” films took the direct imagery of that tragic Tuesday morning – the smoke, the buildings collapsing, the men falling – and used it. to make these larger-than-life characters seem like the heroes were saving the world as it really was, the one we experienced, not the fantastic that we had seen in the past.

Then, eclipsing them all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born, and this is where the unresolved narrative needs of the American audience focused the most.

In “Captain America,” the desire for a clear understanding of the American good was fulfilled, an embodiment of innocence forced to face a darker age. In “Iron Man,” American ingenuity overcomes Muslim extremism.

QUICKMADE

* Netflix broadcasts a 5-part series, Turning Point, which documents the 9/11 terrorist attacks, from Al Qaeda’s roots in the 1980s to the American response, both at home and abroad.

And in the “Avengers,” 9/11 itself was apparently enacted by an alien force, whose only solution was not the popular unity of the American people towards a common goal, but the use of heroes for the sake of it. to do. Work for us.

America has also found some real heroes to bring to the screen. US Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle was portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film “American Sniper,” which went on to become that year’s highest-grossing film and war film. most profitable ever.

“American Sniper” shed the nuance that had plagued “war on terror” movies for over a decade and replaced it with a character who had the confident head of a Marvel hero, the understanding clear that he was a good guy who killed bad guys, who had never done an unjustifiable act.

It was intoxicating for many audiences, who chose to ignore the fact that Kyle was not the “Captain America” ​​one might have hoped for, but instead idolized Marvel hero “The Punisher” , a monstrous vigilante whose iconography is popular among American special forces. Because of this, as the dust settles, the film has a more controversial legacy than its initial praise suggested.


An American flag hangs from Oculus at the World Trade Center Transportation Hub for Memorial Day weekend in New York City on May 29, 2021. (File / AFP)

All is not gloomy, of course. American cinema has been at its best when it looks inward more critically and outside its borders with more compassion.

Arab and Muslim films and artists have gained prominence in the awards show, and TV series such as “Ramy” have themselves portrayed 9/11 from the perspective of Arab Americans who suddenly find themselves together. altered.

The push and pull that has existed in the creative community over the past two decades ultimately seems to lean more towards an answer that perhaps should have been found immediately afterwards: that peace, coexistence and the recognition of common humanity are which overcomes the acts of evil, and labeling an enemy widely as an entire culture only creates more things to fight.

Twitter: @whmullally


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