When rapper Nas wanted to use the N-word as the title to his last album, it was clear that it was intended as a bold attempt to own the term in a context of militantly antiracist art that lets the listener know how it feels to be on the receiving end of the slur.
Even then, the record company didn’t let him do it.
The album was released untitled.
When the film “Towelhead” first debuted a year ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was called “Nothing is Private.”
But the shock value of using the ethnic slur must have been too juicy to resist. The movie will begin playing at the Main Art Theater in Royal Oak Sept. 19 listed as “Towelhead,” an ethnic slur against Arabs.
Based on the novel of the same name by Alicia Erian, “Towelhead” is a film about a girl from a broken, dysfunctional family struggling through puberty.
It’s also about American attitudes during the first Gulf War. It’s also about sexual obsession, statutory rape, child abuse, underage sex…
It’s also about racism toward blacks and bigotry toward Arab Americans but not enough to justify the title.
The film tries to do too much.
It’s filled with well-done, intense, emotional scenes of adolescent sexuality and vulnerability and awkwardness, but the ethnic identity moments are shallow and fleeting.
The automatic rage that the title sparks is never eased.
Great acting and hilariously peppered-in dark humor in the movie don’t end up being enough to shake off the pain that the title and the ugly Arab male and helpless Arab female characters generate.
“Towelhead,” adapted and directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under), focuses on the story of 13 year-old Jasira, played by 18 year-old Summer Bishil, who goes to live in Houston with her strict Lebanese father after her mother’s boyfriend is caught helping her shave her pubic hair.
Kids in her new school and neighborhood call her “towelhead,” which apparently drives her to explore her budding sexuality.
Travis, an army reservist next door played by Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight), is eager to take advantage of her innocence, leading to some graphic scenes of traumatic encounters.
Jasira’s father is a jerk.
Not your usual Arab stereotypical jerk. He’s not brutal. He’s not stupid. Actor Peter Macdissi (Six Feet Under) does an amazing job capturing the perfectly annoying accent of an Arab American professional who has been in the U.S. a long time, is full of himself and doesn’t roll his r’s, but over-accentuates them instead.
He’s no evil sheik, but he’s selfish, overbearing, neglectful and eventually gets set straight by a white liberal neighbor who puts him in his place by telling him in Arabic learned in the Peace Corps to respect himself.
For an Arab American, watching this movie hurts. And not in the way a movie or a book is supposed to make you hurt.
It hurts knowing that non-Arabs are going to watch it and have negative images of Arab men reinforced. It hurts knowing that other Arabs will watch it and feel embarrassed. It hurts to imagine those who might not even see the film passing by cinema marquees, reading the title and giggling.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations urged Ball to change the title of the movie, saying that it could increase use of the loaded slur.
Ball has said he tried but could not decide on anything that would have served as a better title.
The film at times seems a little like a twisted after-school special with lessons on menstruation, dirty magazines, masturbation, the predatory habits of males, pubic hair, orgasms, molestation, virginity and condoms.
One local critic after a recent screening suggested “Tamponhead” as a more appropriate title.