By: Tad Masthay, Junior, English and Women’s and Gender Studies
Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers to the film “American Sniper.”
Yes, American Sniper was racist and Islamophobic. “But it’s a true story,” you say. “How could it be racist?”
I’m glad you asked.
Let’s start with the fact that, even if we give authority to the film and the memoir on which it’s based, the stories we choose to tell matter. If Chris Kyle is a war hero—an acknowledgement I would not suggest as it legitimizes the mission he’s participating in—then the fact that we select his story over, say, the gang-rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl by U.S. soldiers or the abuses at Abu Ghraib or the thousands of civilians killed by American and parliamentary forces means we are mediating and sanitizing the reality of U.S. military occupation in Iraq. (Note: This is even before asking the question of whether the war in Iraq itself was wrong.) The narrative presented in the film—unlike these other details—is one designed to fit nicely and conveniently for selective American ears that cannot handle criticism of the U.S. military. But let’s go into the content of the movie itself.
To open, the foreboding sense of danger is signified by a black screen with the Muslim call to prayer playing. The image of a battle-ravaged Fallujah appears and Chris Kyle is there, protagonist and patron saint of all those unfortunate enough to be on the ground. Let’s think about this: the call to prayer for Muslims in Fallujah is supposed to signify danger? This is the equivalent of using people taking the Eucharist as a sign that they are dangerous. A fairly normal aspect of Iraqi Muslims’ religious practice is being used to signify threat and invoke fear. Islam itself is being identified with threat by playing with Americans’ unfamiliarity with the call to prayer being a normal aspect of the social landscape for Iraqis. Likely many similar sounds in the American environment could be made foreboding to Iraqis. Similarly, the militants themselves are made wholly “other” to make them scary.
When Chris Kyle has to do battle with another sniper in the film, the other sniper is marked with some special music and putting on some special garb that marks him as different or “other.” In showing this, the film ignores that in Iraq many militants actually wore Western garb like Nike shoes and Ecko T-shirts. Think about this: Are the militants Chris Kyle is facing so obviously different that they are some incarnation of evil? Sure, they may be doing cruel things (as Kyle himself is doing as part of his job) and supporting ideologies many of us find abhorrent, but their enemy status is not so readily obvious from their appearance as to know they are the threat. The character is being racialized by representing him as such. His garb, his skin color and his choice of weapon are necessarily associated with his “evil” character in the film. This motif of enemies being easily recognizable comes full circle when Kyle’s wife appears to know that the vet who kills Kyle is a danger by just looking at him. I’m not saying people don’t have suspicions, but the fact that within the film every suspicion based on appearance is confirmed is problematic to say the least.
This is all to barely scratch the surface of all the problems of the film. The moral organization of the movie is unambiguously broken down to “wolves vs. sheep dogs.” Kyle refers to Arabs as “savages” regularly. He even suggests that his buddy’s death is his own fault because he questioned the war. Those are not the viewpoints of someone trustworthy for representing political reality.
This is not to say that the movie is always uncritical and is a pure sacralization of Kyle. But, given the hyperpatriotic audience will refuse to recognize an unreliable narrator, we have to clarify that, shockingly, Kyle was no saint and the film representing him is no untainted, unbiased representative slice of reality.