An orientalist train wreck
I walked into the wrong movie the other night. Who does that?
Here’s what happened. When I looked up Black Gold, I accidentally read the favorable reviews for the 2006 documentary on the coffee trade. I was so excited they were showing that in Kuwait (one of our shopping malls has six Starbucks Coffee stores…)! I only realized I might be heading to the wrong movie when my friend sent me a message saying, “well, I hope Banderas makes a convincing Arab.”
And Antonio Banderas does make a convincing Arab, in the 2011 Black Gold. But that’s about the only thing the movie gets right.
The movie “tells the story of the rivalry between two Emirs in Arabia in the 1930’s just as oil is being discovered, and the rise of a young, dynamic leader who unites the various tribes of the desert kingdom.” And the movie tells this fictitious epic drama from a western point of view, to a western audience – and that really bothered me, seeing as the movie was produced by Tarak Ben Ammar (Chairman of Quinta Communications) and co-produced by Doha Film Institute, Qatar. I would have thought that a movie with a $55 million budget could have gotten someone to research life in 1930’s Arabia and at least work on actors’ pronunciation.
I don’t even know where to start, because I didn’t go in expecting to review this movie. But it was horrible and that’s me putting the terrible acting aside in this short review.
The movie is painfully slow at the beginning as it sets the scene and gives the audiences all the background information. And if the slow start is not bad enough, than the 6 or 7 different accents one hears, definitely are! So the movie is about Arabs but the story is told in English. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. A modern-day audience can suspend their sense of disbelief. I can engage with a work of art that is telling me “this is a story about Arabs, and they’re technically speaking in Arabic *wink wink*”. But I cannot possibly suspend any sense of disbelief if the actors decide to put on terrible (Indo-Arab-African) accents in order to portray the Arabs. It affects comprehensibility. It gets in the way. I couldn’t engage with the movie because of the heavy accents. If you’re going to present a movie in English, then please stick to English.
And while we’re on accents and pronunciations, why couldn’t someone have sat down with the actors and decided on ONE pronunciation for Salah. Saleh. Saleeh. Saaaleh. SALLLL-EH. I really don’t care which one, but a little consistency would have been great.
Then there was the inescapable Eurocentric orientalist twist to everything! Princess Leila is the best example. Whether she’s peeking seductively from behind the mashrabiyya, or choosing to pull away her black robe to show her husband her tantalizing Jasmine (yes, like in Disney’s Aladdin) wedding night attire, all her behavior is uncharacteristic of an Arabian woman at the time. What Arab woman in her right mind would have laughed in reply to her father’s inquiry about her wedding night and boldly said, “Father, isn’t that the point of a wedding night? To dishonor the bride?” (Words to that effect.) The sexualization of the women in the movie was nauseating.
I hated the movie and there just did not have enough redeeming elements, from the script (a total flop) to the special effects. The airstrike and battle scenes were poorly executed and reminiscent of late night re-runs of cheesy sci-fi movies that nobody actually watches. In an attempt to make the movie more appealing to audiences, Black Gold is more concerned with selling the stereotypical image of an Arab. Even if that means throwing in incorrect props and dresses, even if it means incorporating inappropriate clichés and turning what could have been an interesting storyline into an orientalist train wreck.