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.