THE MISTREATMENT OF MINORITIES IN HOLLYWOOD films is an old and common complaint, and sadly, a perpetually legitimate one. The latest offender is the box-office smash The Mummy, which has drawn criticism from the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) for its portrayal of an Arab jailer--a loathsome, greedy buffoon with visions of riches filling his head. Even his personal hygiene is mocked. The most common description given of him by other characters is "smelly."

Is the ADC overreacting? Not at all. In fact, they don't even mention the film's "good" Arabs, who are equally stereotypical: eternally patient desert warriors content to stoically gaze down from the mountain ridges at Europeans struggling in the heat. But I still like the movie, and to understand why requires a fuller understanding of what I think writer/director Stephen Sommers was trying (not always successfully) to do.

In my review of The Mummy, I was probably too glib in making a reference to the film's "cheerful racism and sexism," but that's still the perfect adjective. The Mummy isn't just racist, it's so backward in its portrayal of Arabs it seems naïve. Or maybe just old. Far more than Steven Spielberg's slick and clever throwbacks to old movie styles in the Indiana Jones films, The Mummy seems exactly like a '30s adventure serial, just beefed up with the latest special effects. Sommers immerses himself so fully into the ethos of the time he's evoking, he doesn't blink at dragging in the nastier attitudes of the times as well.

Sometimes he's clever enough to blame the low attitudes about Arabs on his characters--one brilliant scene has a group of Americans about to pry open a tomb; when it's pointed out that the job is dangerous, they turn it over to the hired help, who quickly get doused with acid--but more often he just lets the vicious clichés play out without commentary. Sommers has done this before: in his exciting version of The Jungle Book a few years back, the bad guys were Englishmen, and he never missed a chance to poke fun at their stiff shirts and stiffer manners.

Hateful attitudes aren't excusable just because they've been around forever, so The Mummy deserves all the lambasting it gets on this score. However, in its unapologetic embrace of our cruelest imaginings of Arabs, in its presentation of the basest stereotypes from the '30s till today, it also gives a far more accurate picture of where our movies were--and are--with regard to minorities. In that sense, it's much better than a confused, hypocritical piece of garbage like The Siege, which thought it had balanced the books by pitting one nice-guy FBI agent Arab against only a few dozen heartless, fanatical terrorists.

The racist comedy The Mummy is currently playing at the Meridian 16, Metro, Oak Tree, and outlying theaters.

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