Throwback Thursdays: Politics and Whitewashing in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas

(image via Wikipedia)

One of my favorite movies when I was a kid was the 2003 Dreamworks movie Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. It didn’t get great reviews and its plot was nothing to write home about, but I loved all the characters, the adventure, and the romance, and I wore out our little VHS tape and annoyed all my family members by watching it over and over. I even bought the video game (side note: wasn’t great, do not recommend). Then I went on to other movies and mostly forgot about Sinbad until I caught a glimpse of it while channel-flipping last month. Fascinated, I watched it all again from the beginning, and then did what I didn’t think about in 2003: I went to research it online. What I found was that Sinbad could have potentially been far more creative and representative than the version that we got.

Spoilers for Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas below.

Our protagonist Sinbad is a thieving pirate and rogue who, at the start of the movie, is trying to steal the Book of Peace. We never really figure out what the Book of Peace does—as its name implies, it supposedly keeps the peace—but nevertheless, Sinbad is after it, and he goes after the fleet of Prince Proteus of Syracuse in order to get it. What actually happens is that the fleet is attacked by a giant squid sent by Eris, the goddess of discord, and Sinbad is integral in saving the lives of both Proteus’s crew and his own. Proteus sails off to Syracuse, and Sinbad follows after to see the Book and crash his party. Though Proteus welcomes Sinbad, Sinbad sees Proteus’s fiancé, the Lady Marina, and leaves immediately. We later find out that Proteus was Sinbad’s childhood best friend and Sinbad turned to his life of crime after falling in love with Marina at first sight.

After Sinbad leaves, the goddess Eris takes his form, sneaks into the guard tower, and takes the Book of Peace, dropping one of Sinbad’s knives in the tower as evidence of his crimes. Sinbad is arrested and sentenced to death, but Proteus, thanks to Sinbad’s prior actions, chooses to take his place in jail. Sinbad now has ten days to return to Syracuse with the Book, or Proteus will die. Marina’s unwilling to leave her fiancé’s life in the hands of a known pirate and smuggles herself onto his ship to ensure that he will actually go after Eris. Along the way, obviously, they fall in love, they get the Book, and everyone (mostly) lives happily ever after.

This is a pretty clichéd and predictable plot, but you would not believe how many times I watched this movie as a baby middle schooler. I loved Marina and her pigheadedness and how she won the respect of everyone on Sinbad’s crew, Sinbad included. Though it was Sinbad’s story, she was never his damsel to be rescued and in fact did the rescuing for Sinbad several times. The eyeroll-inducing love triangle was also dealt with in a handy, if unrealistic, way, with Proteus realizing that Marina loved Sinbad and gamely annulling their engagement with no apparent hard feelings. It wasn’t until I rewatched the movie as an adult that I realized that Proteus really had no characterization, the Book of Peace was just a MacGuffin, and other than Marina and Eris, there were no women in the movie.

“Haha, Sinbad is a funny name”—the extent of my middle school analysis. (picture via theanimeharvest)

Sinbad had a much deeper problem than its clichéd writing, but as an American-raised and educated person, it took me a long time to realize it. All of Sinbad’s fun adventures are actually just a Western spin on the actual, Middle Eastern, myth of Sinbad the Sailor. Sinbad the Sailor has many fantastical adventures, in one landing upon an island that’s actually a whale, and in another hitching a ride on a giant roc. These are both things that happen in the movie: on their way to Eris’s domain, Sinbad and Marina fight on a giant island, and the disturbed whale takes off with them still on it; Marina is later snatched up by a roc and Sinbad has to go after them. But if you have no knowledge of Middle Eastern legends, you would have no idea that these events were anything other than the imaginings of the writing team. The Syracuse of the story is Syracuse, Sicily, Proteus and Marina are both Greek names, and Eris, of course, is the Greek goddess of strife and discord. Sinbad’s crew are drawn as people of many different ethnicities, with one of the most memorable speaking with a strong Italian accent. Aside from Sinbad’s name, there’s nothing left to imply that this movie is based off a Middle Eastern myth. As Guardian reviewer Sean Clarke puts it:

But what’s most striking about this transformation is how comprehensively – and surprisingly consistently – the film has been Hellenised. Eris is indeed the goddess of chaos in the Greek pantheon, and the use of Thebes and Syracuse moves the action wholesale to the Mediterranean, and out of the Persian gulf. And as Soria admits, even the central premise of the Sinbad legend – that the hardworking and forgivably avaricious merchant doesn’t know when to stop – has been swapped for a Greek parable about friendship. To remove specific references to Arabic and Persian culture is one thing. But to replace them throughout with Greek references, to shove the story in the same mythological milieu as Jason and the Argonauts is quite another. […] In airbrushing out the Arabs, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas encourages a warped view of our collective cultural heritage. In its Hellenised form, it perpetuates the idea that all learning, all civilisation, even that all stories, come from the Greek and Roman tradition.

This Hellenization is particularly egregious when you consider the state of Muslim and Middle Eastern representation in media, both when this movie premiered in 2003 and today. The power of representation to effect change is something that we’ve pointed out many times on this blog, and politicians aren’t unaware of the importance of representation. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, it was more important than ever to have some kind of positive portrayal of Muslims in our mass media. Then-President Bush even invited Muslim leaders to the White House in 2001; an imam gave him a Quran and Bush reiterated that Islam was a religion of peace and that he did not want to label terrorists as “Islamic” or “Muslim”. However, the Bush administration’s dedication to positive Muslim figures in our stories seemed nebulous at best. Mere months after this meeting, Bush administration officials set up a meeting with executives of Hollywood companies like Dreamworks to discuss how Hollywood could help in the war against terrorism; according to one attendee, content was “off the table”, and nothing appears to have come of this discussion. Whatever its effect on Dreamworks, Sinbad was duly whitewashed two years later.

Fast forward fourteen years, and the state of Muslim and Middle Eastern representation is pretty much still stuck where it’s always been. The Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning Homeland was lambasted for its racist portrayal of Muslims in 2015, and aside from the few movies talking about historical Muslims, the majority of other Muslims on TV are terrorists or oppressed women. Bush’s successor, former president Obama, also pushed the idea of representation; his vice president Joe Biden cited LGBTQ+ representation on television as a reason support for gay marriage gained a foothold in American society and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, also met with Hollywood executives in 2016 to discuss ways to counter ISIS media narratives. However, there similarly doesn’t appear to have been an effort to counter negative Muslim tropes and stereotypes at this meeting either.

Sinbad would have been a first step for Muslim representation in 2003, but it was turned into a Greek-inspired action-adventure story, and though it was animated, it did not have a single Muslim or Muslim-American person in its voice cast. In 2017, at least, Muslim creators are making some small strides forward. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, a popular Netflix original, has episodes that discuss Islam and the Muslim-American experience in a nuanced and realistic way, and in the comics world, we have Kamala Khan, the Muslim Pakistani-American girl who becomes Ms. Marvel. Both have gotten rave reviews, and both are a sign that stories like these have the potential to generate revenue and increase audiences’ understanding of Islam and the Muslim-American experience. But despite these, we still have no Muslim heroes on the (much more far-reaching) silver screen, and no signs of when we will manage to get one there.

Politics almost always affects media and the need for better and more accurate representation, and in the year 2017, the current American president is unlike both presidents Bush and Obama in calling for a Muslim ban and focusing specifically on how Islam is supposedly all about terrorism. Hate crimes and racist attacks are reported nearly daily across the U.S., and tensions are high. Now more than ever is the time for increased, nuanced Muslim representation—possibly starting with this live-action Sinbad reboot. I can only hope that this new version will be the Muslim action-adventure myth that the animated 2003 version could not be.

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