White Savior Cinema

A conversation with Palestinian German director Lexi Alexander about Wonder Woman’s promotion of Arab stereotypes, her experiences of racism behind the camera, and the stakes of accurately portraying marginalized communities on screen.

Rebecca Pierce
January 8, 2021
A still from Wonder Woman: 1984, in which Gal Gadot saves four Arab children from a rocket attack. Still courtesy of Warner Bros.

The much-anticipated Christmas Day release of Wonder Woman: 1984 was met with immediate controversy over its depiction of Arabs and the Middle East. Much of the online criticism of the film centers around its depictions of an Egyptian Emir and an Arab terrorist trying to obtain nuclear weapons, as well as scenes that many viewers felt shared jarring resonances with the violence Palestinians face under Israeli occupation. One scene drew particular ire: Wonder Woman lassoes a rocket to protect four Arab children playing soccer, which many felt was reminiscent of the high-profile killing of four boys from the same family who were playing soccer on a beach during the 2014 Israeli bombing of Gaza. This was all the more loaded given previous controversies over Wonder Woman star and co-producer Gal Gadot’s role as an IDF training officer during the 2006 Lebanon War, and a Facebook post she made in support of the IDF during the war in which the boys were killed.

Palestinian German filmmaker Lexi Alexander was quick to use her platform to signal boost the wave of online critiques of the film from young viewers of color. A seasoned director who has closely studied, and worked to challenge, the depictions of Arabs and Palestinians in Hollywood films, Alexander immediately recognized the tropes being described. The Punisher: Warzone, Green Street Hooligans, and Supergirl director was the first woman to helm a Marvel film adaptation, and has built her career in Hollywood while facing harsh retribution for her efforts to resist the industry’s exclusionary, and frequently racist, status quo. For Alexander, the problems with Wonder Woman are representative of an industry that considers itself progressive while consistently excluding marginalized voices and punishing those who fight back, and of a culture that still actively resists any attempt to portray Arabs, especially Palestinians, in a humanizing light. I recently spoke to Alexander about the Wonder Woman controversy, her personal experiences of racism behind the camera, and the stakes of accurately portraying marginalized communities on screen.

Rebecca Pierce: What made you react to the controversy over Wonder Woman: 1984, and how did problematic depictions of Arabs come to be so prevalent in Hollywood movies?

Lexi Alexander: When you know about Palestine, or you are Palestinian, you are very sensitive to something like the scene with the four boys. People do not know Arabs as anything other than oil sheiks who have harems, or as terrorists, or in the rare “woke” cases, people who get to help the CIA. That’s why, in the real world, it’s so easy to kill four boys from the same family playing soccer or a young nurse who’s helping someone [during the Great March of Return protests in Gaza]. This is how entertainment shapes our minds. That scene where Wonder Woman saves the boys—I can’t guarantee that nobody made the connection. But my guess is Gal Gadot probably wouldn’t purposefully say, “Let’s start some shit.” I don’t think [writer and director] Patty Jenkins knows about these boys at all. To me, that’s more offensive, the fact that nobody knows what happens in Palestine.

They didn’t sit in a room together and say, “How can we upset Palestinians the most?” On the contrary, the conversation is often more like, “How can we write something that [for example] Black people really like?” and then it goes in the complete opposite direction. Take Green Book [the 2018 film about a Black musician’s white chauffeur]. Many of my Hollywood friends said, “Look, this is going to be a great movie that everybody will like.” Immediately, the trailer comes out and I see all of Black Twitter explode [the film generated controversy over its historical inaccuracy and white savior narrative]. But a lot of powerful people in Hollywood think they are very woke.  

When you only have those people in charge of telling stories, they just keep nurturing this racism and these misunderstandings. They think: If we have this Black man chauffeured around, that’ll win us an Oscar. And then they do win an Oscar, while all of Black America is upset. That’s Hollywood. 

There was a time when certain production companies made movies that specifically dehumanized Arabs in order to justify invasions in the Arab world. If you don’t make them human, then who cares? But I don’t think that’s what happened with Wonder Woman. I think they probably thought they’d be getting great press: “Look how nice and friendly she is to Arabs.”

Director Lexi Alexander at work. Photo courtesy of Lexi Alexander.

RP: So you think it was more paternalism than intentional stereotyping?

LA: Yeah. They think this is how they get rid of racism, by centering themselves. If Gal Gadot wanted to say, “What do I put in the script so that this doesn’t come up?” I would say, “You’re not the one who needs to tell this story.” But there’s nobody in Hollywood who says that.

RP: To date, the only woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director was Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, which, along with her film Zero Dark Thirty, was criticized as a pro-military film with Islamophobic tropes. It seems like this may be an avenue for women directors, that opportunities and recognition come with projects that uphold the status quo.

LA: You can’t go into this business and be the woman who loves to make chick flicks or peace movies. Kathryn Bigelow knew that making movies like the guys is the way in. That was very clear to me when I started my career making a short film about a boxer that was nominated for an Academy Award. Then the next thing I made was an insane movie about hooligans where people just beat the shit out of each other. I had five massive fight scenes in there. Why do people think I did that? I did that to show that I’m the least “woman” you can imagine. I’m so Guy Ritchie, I’m so Quentin Tarantino. I knew that was the only way in. And to this day, I still only get offered stuff in that arena. I love to watch true crime stories, or historical dramas, and I mistakenly thought that once I got in, they’d let me do other stuff. Now, the cop shows hire me. The FBI shows hire me. S.W.A.T. hires me. Sometimes, you just need a paycheck. I think a lot of my Black activist friends look at me sideways, like, “Why are you saying you are against police violence but you make these cop shows?” How can I blame them for saying that? I even made a movie in which I played an Arab woman who fell on the ground after being shot. It was a small moment, but don’t think I wasn’t aware. I was even kind of jokingly praying, “Okay, God, forgive me for this.”

RP: What I’m hearing is that women trying to work in this industry have limited options, so you end up getting pigeonholed, sometimes into problematic ventures.

LA: Yeah.

RP: You were the first woman to direct a Marvel film adaptation, with 2008’s Punisher: Warzone. What has changed in the industry since then, and what has stayed the same?

LA: Many of the women who direct big movies now are completely ignoring that they’re standing on the shoulders of this woman named Maria Giese. In 2013, she started saying, “They’re discriminating against us. What can we do?” This became an official investigation by the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission]. That was a big deal. This was before there was any other woman doing comic book movies. 

I joined around 2014, once the ACLU had taken on the cause and needed women like myself to explain to them the hiring process. There were five or six of us who were persona non grata; we were all blacklisted. I would go in and interview for a movie or show, and then my agents would hear that the hiring studio got some bad references about me. But they don’t tell you who the reference was or what was said. Can you imagine the immense capacity for abuse of power such a system provides? Anybody can just say anything about me to prevent me from booking a job, and I can’t find out who it was or what they accused me of. There are very few women who started off with an Oscar-nominated short film, followed by an award-winning fight movie, and had a career as a stunt woman and a World Kickboxing Champion before that. It’s really hard not to feel that there’s something dodgy going on when an industry has refused to hire female directors for action movies suddenly has to hire them due to EEOC legal threats, but then excludes one of the most qualified women completely. It was so obvious, I had lawyers drop business cards in my mailbox offering to sue. 

The thing is, I wanted to make movies and TV shows, not be involved in lawsuits. People who don’t have to deal with discrimination never quite get that all the angry, loud people would rather be laughing and talking about pop culture, too. We just don’t have a choice. Many of these women truly thought that we would be ruining it for all of them. Since the EEOC got involved, some women have gotten big jobs, but it’s always the women who aren’t troublemakers; those of us who are actually outspoken very rarely get hired. So how is that going to make a difference?

RP: You’ve spoken a lot about how there’s silence around Palestinian rights in Hollywood. Have you experienced discrimination specifically for being a Palestinian woman and being outspoken about that?

LA: Nobody goes out in the open and says, “Don’t hire her because she’s Palestinian.” It’s more like you have a meeting, someone finds out you’re Palestinian, you leave the meeting, you don’t get hired, and you wonder. When I first came to Hollywood, somebody said to me, “Look, you can either say you’re German or you can say you’re Palestinian. You can’t be both. You will never make it. But we recommend you say you’re German.” I always thought that was interesting because in my opinion, my German family does not have a good history. My grandfather fought for the Nazis in Russia. I don’t get why that is more acceptable than my Palestinian family who literally did nothing. One day they were in their house and the next day they weren’t.

There was an unbelievable situation at a TV show I worked on where the police technical advisor went on the most insane, over-the-top anti-Arab rant. He heard that I teach women in domestic violence shelters, and he said, “Well, you know, most domestic violators are Arabs, right?” This was a show starring two women, and I actually felt like I was well-treated, so I thought, “Well, do I ruin this now by making a huge deal?” I knew immediately that if I reported anything, it would break in the press, and it would basically ruin the show. So I ended up keeping it to myself, and only when the show was renewed for a second season did I share with the showrunner that this happened. Then I ended up not getting called back to the show. I was one of the few directors who didn’t get rehired, even though the head of the network had already asked me to come back. They had submitted my episode to the Emmys.

It turned into this whole thing with lawyers and the studio, where the studio was just trying to settle. So I was trying to understand: How much money is it worth to be called a dirty Arab on set and then not get hired back? I didn’t want their money. I wanted change, but nobody in charge wanted change—except Gabrielle Union, who was the only one who stood by me. She backed me up 100%. So I decided to join this [informal network] in California that fights against forced arbitration, because as you can imagine, I’m not the only one.

RP: Regarding Gabrielle Union, have you seen any success building solidarity between women of color filmmakers, in terms of getting more representation in these behind-the-camera roles?

LA: Well, Ava Duvernay must have hired dozens of first-time directors on her show and put them into the system. The industry kept saying for years, “Well, we can’t find them.” She basically said, “Fuck you, I’ll show you. It’s not that difficult.” Most of these women have great careers. So she single-handedly proved them wrong.

I wish we would have more solidarity among women and especially women of color. I wish we would build a gang that watches out for each other. Ava did a great thing, which I never want to take away from her, but she was already in a power position. Helping somebody who is less powerful or has no foot in the industry is easier for me than reaching out to other directors of color who are on my level. We all suspiciously eye each other and don’t trust each other, because everybody’s on a different level in terms of how much they want to speak out. I can’t tell a Black woman director what level of risk she should be comfortable taking. It may be completely different for her than it is for me.

RP: What kind of Palestinian stories would you like to see presented to a more mainstream audience?

LA: A movie that did an incredible job that I constantly try to get people to see was The Idol, about [2013 Arab Idol winner] Mohammed Assaf. I could cry just thinking about it because he’s still out there singing, he’s touring the world. It’s literally a rags to riches story—Americans should eat that up! 

Most of my peers would probably call this a really well-made biopic. It showed so much of us. It showed the kids just being careless and running through the streets. It showed what it looks like to deal with sickness in Gaza, and how care for sick kids is just not the same as in the West. It shows the barriers Mohammed faced in getting to the audition once he decided to enter the competition; you can’t just move freely as a Palestinian. But in the end he was just a kid who had talent and a dream, and who went for it. There are Palestinian films like Paradise Now that I admire that deal with the occupation and with the conflict. For sure, you need to see these movies, but The Idol was something else. People don’t see us as human, and that’s what I would like to see: humanizing stories, stories about our hopes and dreams.

RP: Do you have anything you are working on now that responds to this need for more humanizing representation?

LA: Yeah. I’m working on my second project with Jason Blum at Blumhouse. He’s well known for taking the kinds of projects that others won’t touch. Get Out was actually passed on by many, many production companies. I think they literally went through the whole town and nobody wanted to make it, and Jason ended up making and distributing it. Thank God he gets rewarded for it. 

As for the movie I’m working on now, it’s a sci-fi martial arts movie called The Battle of Absolute Dominion (B.A.D.). It’s set in a future where all belief systems have different names and thrive in different geographical borders, but are still exploited by the powerful to cause conflict. It was optioned for Netflix. If this pandemic chills out soon, hopefully I’ll get to shoot it.

RP: For me, this conversation really speaks to the power of representation. Positive representation can make someone seem human when you’ve never seen them that way before, and negative representation can reaffirm stereotypes used to justify why that person deserves to be killed.

LA: Correct. That’s the only reason I hang on, because this isn’t an easy industry, and to someone as outspoken as me, it’s incredibly abusive. It would be much easier to quit, but if we leave this industry only in toxic, white supremacist hands, it’ll be the end of us. This medium gets into more homes than any other. Not even the internet is that powerful. 

We are basically bringing these stories into existence. When I see people like Boots Riley succeeding, I’m like, “Oh, thank God.” When I come with a movie that would actually make change, I know there’s no way I get that green-lit. I have to come up with things that play within the system, while always hoping that I can sneak a message in. We’re just a drop on a hot stone, but at least we’re still here.

Rebecca Pierce is a Black and Jewish filmmaker and writer from San Francisco and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents. Her writing has been published in The New Republic, The Forward, The Nation, and +972 Magazine.