Why isn’t the ‘Prince of Persia’ a real Persian?

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (film)

Image via Wikipedia

It’s impossible to avoid trailers for the film “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” which have even appeared embedded in ABC-TV’s coverage of the NBA playoffs. Those who’ve missed the trailer can watch it below, and when you do, notice the Persian domes and minarets. Notice the Persian-style dress. Notice the other Middle Eastern motifs (including sand dunes) that conjure up images of 1001 Nights. And notice that the prince himself, a man named Dastan (a Persian word meaning “story”) is played by a non-Persian actor, Jake Gyllenhaal. What’s wrong with this picture?

On the one hand, nothing. Why shouldn’t a white American actor portray an ancient Persian prince? After all, the movie itself is based on an original video game created by a white American (Jordan Mechner), and the prince in that video game (see here) has the exact same non-Persian traits as Jake Gyllenhaal. Still, there’s something disjointed about an entertainment franchise built around “Persia” – i.e., the empire that spawned Iran – whose main character is a non-Persian. Wait, you say. Didn’t Alexander the Great (he of European heritage) conquer Persia 2300 years ago? And didn’t he arrange intermarriage between Macedonian soldiers and Persian women? So couldn’t an ancient Persian prince be as fair-skinned as Gyllenhaal? Not really. And he certainly wouldn’t speak with Gyllenhaal’s “Prince of Persia” accent – a king of pseudo American/British construct that complements the full British accent of co-star Gemma Arterton. (In “Prince of Persian,” Aterton is a white actress who portrays a Persian princess named Tamina.)

The clue that should have warned me “Prince of Persia” would be watered down ethnically? It’s a Disney film. And Disney has a history of whitening its Middle East movies – most notably its animated Aladdin franchise, which featured Robin Williams, and an Aladdin character who spoke like he was from Madison, Wisconsin, not Mecca or Baghdad.

Gyllenhaal is a formidable actor (one fan even mistakenly assumes Gyllenhall is Persian), but if Disney and director Mike Newell (who’s from Britain) wanted an actor of Iranian/Persian descent, they had a wide range of options, including Maz Jobrani, Cas Anvar and (from Iran itself) Mohammad Reza Golzar. Golzar has been likened to Brad Pitt for his good looks. In fact, Golzar looks a bit like an Iranian . . . Jake Gyllenhaal. OK. Maybe the choice of Gyllenhaal wasn’t that atrocious. Disney and Newell could have cast Brad Pitt as the Persian prince. That would have been a tragedy of cinematic proportions.

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16 Responses to Why isn’t the ‘Prince of Persia’ a real Persian?

  1. Of all the Persian actors working in Hollywood today Jake Gyllenhaal is easily my favorite.

    Pretty sure that’s sarcasm.

  2. Mr. Curiel,

    When Hollywood wanted to make a movie about Genghis Khan, why did they have John Wayne play the part? There is not enough scotch tape in all of the Los Angeles to make The Duke look Asian. How many Italian American actors made a career out of playing the cruel future corpses of native Americans. How about Charlton Heston’s Mexican police officer in “A Touch of Evil”? There is of course Warner Oland’s infamous “Charlie Chan” series. The great Alec Guinness played “Koichi Asano” in “A Majoirty of One”, “Prince Faisal” in Lawrence of Arabia, and “Yevgraf Zhivago” Dr. Zhivago’s Mongolian half-brother.

    The more things change the more they stay the same.

    • Thanks for your comments. You’re certainly right to point out the history of actors portraying ethnic characters. I have to say that, in one of my all-time favorite movies, “Lawrence of Arabia,” Sir Alec Guinness plays an Arab leader quite well. But Guinness was a great actor who could inhabit many roles in extraordinary ways.

      • Mr. Curiel,

        A friend of mine just got back from Persia – well Iran. He was showing me his photographs of his relations and friends. They were all Farsi speaking Iranians. I have to say, Mr. Gyllenhaal, with his hair dyed black, would not have looked completely out of place in those photos, especially upper class Iranian from the north-west. That is not to say that a Iranian actor might not have been better, but compared the atrocities of the past, it was not the worst white actor playing an “ethnic role”.

      • Thanks for your comment. Having been to Iran twice, I agree that Gyllenhaal might — with dyed hair — fit in in some regions of Iran. Which is why Golzar sort of looks like Gyllenhall.

  3. cgwalt says:

    They might have chosen Chuck Norris …. if they ANY balls.
    He would have totally rocked the casbah.

  4. Brian Donovan says:

    You need a movie star to open a movie, especially one with franchise potential. I’m sure Maz Jobrani had been regularly featured on the cover of US Magazine, the producers would’ve been more than happy to go with him.

    • I suppose you’re right. If I were a billionaire and financing the franchise, perhaps I would also look for an actor who already had a track record with audiences in the West. Perhaps. But maybe you take a chance on an Iranian lead actor with a Hollywood name as co-star.

    • skelii says:

      respectively, there’s 2 things i have to ask with this assumption, 1) what’s so wrong with making an exceptionally good story with an unknown cast? lately i’ve been more reluctant to lean towards movies that don’t need a big name actor, 3d effects, and huge marketing because you can count on the producers standing behind the movie for its storyline. all of the ‘extras’ is just laziness. and 2) isn’t their a problem with most of the actors on US magazine being white? more importantly, do you see an actor like Jobrani being on the cover any time soon?

  5. jcalton says:

    The truly sad thing is that Iran puts out some good films. It’s not like there are no actors there (or presumably Iranian-born ones here.)

    This is America, damn it: we like our Iranians played by white Americans pretending to be British.

  6. aattarw says:

    They got Ben Kingsley, he’s half indian… that’s basically the same thing right?

  7. So I think whats happening here isn’t a particular Disney plot or omission that leads to Donny Darko wielding the sands of time. Instead, I think its reflective of a much more systemic racism in American society. If you imagine you’re the Exec. Producer of this film and you want to do what your job is–make a shit ton of money. So the hard facts is that Jakie is gonna bring in more dollars than someone of the ethnic background the character purportedly is. So if its Jake’s star power that causes this stir, then the question becomes: why aren’t there Middle Easterners (specifically Iranians) that are of Gyllenhaal-caliber? Well, that’s because Hollywood is racist. 95% of major stars are of white heritage and that number is probably even more skewed when you think of those who normally play leading roles. This is probably because in the industry’s lizard-brain they think that America would have a tough time relating to people who aren’t white. Which leaves two sad possibilities: either 1) white America actually won’t see these movies that star non-white actors as leading characters, or 2) Hollywood is incurably conservative because of their profit-lust, unwilling to try something new, doing damage to the national discourse in the process.

    I sort of suspect its number 2. I mean, we can relate to a fucking robot (WALL-E), blue folks (Avatar), Toys (Toy Story), and even, gasp, Indian people (Slumdog Millionaire). In fact, I think white folks will go see movies starring black actors who are cast in leading roles (any Will Smith or Cuba Gooding Jr. movie). The only reason these actors get these roles is because they are cast as raceless, their blackness doesn’t impact their role. But people still go see these movies. So I think Hollywood producers are skiddish of moving outside what they perceive to be the mainstream and join the rest of us in a diverse country. Gyllenhaal and the Prince of Persia is just another data point along this timeline.

    (note: check out Avatar: the last airbender for whitewashing of the highest caliber where they are erasing Asians from the story entirely, or 21, the MIT blackjack movie, where the ringleaders were asian and the group was intermixed but the movie horridly whitewashed)

  8. cyrus says:

    Does it mean you really don’t know that ancient Iranians were a white nation?!! I don’t know why Americans are so ignorant of history!!

    Have you watched the movie “King Arthur”? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Arthur_(film) about Arthur, a Roman cavalry officer who leads a military force of Sarmatian auxiliary cavalry in Britain.

    Did you ask “Why should some white American actors portray Sarmatians?” You certainly know that Sarmatians were also an Iranian people who lived in the eastern Europe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarmatians

    Please research, “Dastan” was the name of the father of Rostam, Iran’s national here and it doesn’t relate to the word “Daastan” which means “story”.

  9. Thomas Medlicott says:

    My son used to run with some young Iranians in LA. I think the talent pool is more limited than you think. Most of these mid-twenties men were helping their fathers develop real estate or going to college. I wonder how the “Prince of Persia” is going to go over in Tehran? Tom Medlicott

  10. Pingback: A Night in Persia | actorsfilmlounge

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