Forget Mandy Moore. Forget Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Marcia Gay Harden and all those other well-heeled white celebrities in this movie. What really intrigues me about American Dreamz is that it's probably the first mainstream American film with gay Muslim characters. This satire of American Idol and US political leadership has at its heart two intriguing young men: Omer, the Broadway-loving Iraqi terrorist, and Iqbal, the spoilt teenage Arab-American brat.
Iqbal Riza, on the other hand (Tony Yalda) is an utterly flaming gay American immigrant teenager who's grown up in a luxurious Florida mansion, spending his days at the mall and his nights rehearsing vogue-moves in his basement disco. He's unconcerned with the loss of his Arab heritage, and is disgusted when his cousin Omer turns up to live with his family fresh off the boat from being discharged from his terrorist camp. So he's naturally enraged when it's Omer, rather than himself, who's nominated as a contestant in the American Dreamz reality TV singing competition - though he quickly accepts the new status quo, reinventing himself as Omer's bitchy new manager.
Omer and Iqbal's story is only one of several subplots that make up the whole of American Dreamz. But it's arguably the most important thread - Omer's Mujahideen officers order him to make it to the final round of the show and murder the US President with a suicide bomb attack, triggering off a mad chain of events that brings the White House and the entertainment industry together in an explosive ending. More crucially, Omer's one of the few characters who remains truly likeable and sympathetic throughout the entire movie. Sandwiched between commercial fame and fundamentalist pressure, he somehow never loses his innocence, approaching his newfound singing career with the simple joy of someone doing what he loves best.
Hollywood's tended to depict Arabs and Muslims either as villains (see True Lies) or as victims (see Crash) - sometimes both (see Three Kings). It's pretty refreshing to see how Omer and Iqbal defy old stereotypes as personalities independent of their Muslim identity. It's also telling that Omer's a far more sympathetic figure than his cousin Iqbal, whose embrace of American pop drives him to obsessively pursue celebrity status by any means necessary.
I feel like there's a subtle criticism of American gay culture here. The one other character who sets off my gaydar is a sharp-dressing talent agent named Chet, who's one of the weaselliest personalities ever. He persuades the ambitious rival contestant, Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), to market herself as trailer trash since "everyone in America... likes to have someone to look down on." He even recommends lying about the location of her father, who's run off with a boyfriend in Chicago, since that storyline would be just "too controversial."
Gay culture's long been known to celebrate the campy, glorying in the irony of superficial glamour. But as American Dreamz shows, this superficiality is the very fuel of a mind-numbing, manipulative entertainment industry. Gay men like Iqbal and Chet can gain wealth and power in that society - but they can't claim to be leading lives of social fulfilment.
American Dreamz isn't a perfect film: its pacing is problematic, it may have been over-ambitious in its attempt to parody both politics and TV, and I'm unsatisfied with its shallow treatment of US foreign policy in the Muslim world. But it's a funny and unconventional movie, especially thought provoking from the perspective of a non-American. In fact, I can't help seeing the movie as a challenge to gay Asian men everywhere, who're being told to buy into an Americanised gay community that prizes beauty and fame. Can we, like Omer, embrace the freedom of a new culture while retaining our integrity, or will we all end up as bitchy market-driven queens like Iqbal?
In the end, of course, our identities are never so simple. Let's hope Hollywood recognises that, and brings a few more unstereotyped, complex Asian and Muslim characters onto our cineplex screens, of any orientations.
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