There's an Interesting LA Times story today on actors of Middle Eastern descent struggling with the roles available to them:
"Arabs and Arab Americans in Hollywood live in an interesting time. The appetite for Middle Eastern stories and themes boomed after 9/11 and grew again with the ongoing grind of the war in Iraq. But the roles suddenly being created for Arab-heritage actors often are limited to those of terrorists or are otherwise so poorly drawn that actors must swallow their pride to take them. And that's if they even get offered the parts.
Some in the community still see the changes as a sign of progress.
"There is more work out there for the Arab actor than 10 years ago," said Ismail Kanater, a Moroccan actor who has been in Showtime's "Sleeper Cell" and the now-canceled Steven Bochco series "Over There." "Even though we get actors complaining about terrorist roles, there is a natural interest in the region. That will open doors."
At least one actor made that interest pay off. Omar Metwally played a Palestinian militant in "Munich" and has received good buzz about his role in the current film "Rendition," in which he plays an Arab American trapped in a war-on-terrorism nightmare when he becomes suspected of being a terrorist. "Americans are hungry for information," Metwally said. "They want to engage."
But until that engagement becomes a full-fledged conversation, the enduring dilemma for Arab actors is whether to play terrorist roles. It's often the only work available to them, but it can leave them feeling guilty or conflicted.
That terrorist dilemma has even been turned into comedy. The pilot episode of "The Watch List," a Middle Eastern American show vying for a spot on Comedy Central, features a skit in which young Arab actors learn how to play terrorists. The students practice holding an assault rifle, begging "24's" Jack Bauer for their lives and, finally, falling down dead."
Robert Townsend covered this same issue brilliantly in 1987's Hollywood Shuffle, which focused on the limited roles available to African-American actors. After years of not being able to find work playing anything other than muggers, pimps, slaves, ex-slaves, runaway slaves, or butlers, Townsend wrote, directed, and starred in his own independent film (partly financed by maxing out a bunch of credit cards) about a young actor trying to hold on to his dignity when the only roles available are muggers, pimps, slaves, ex-slaves, runaway slaves, or butlers.
Here's a clip. (NSFW, unless your W approves of strong language and devastating, depressingly still-relevant satire.)