SNL’s recent sketch “Prince Audition” reminds us MENA folks are white whenever it’s convenient to erase us, but non-white when it comes to matters of life-and-death like bombing the Middle East or the Muslim Ban.
During Rami Malek’s recent stint hosting SNL’s, he and Kenan Thompson starred in the skit “Prince Audition,” which staged final callbacks for a Prince biopic ostensibly directed by Jordan Peele, played by Chris Redd. At the top of the sketch, casting directors (played by Punkie Johnson and Ego Nwodim) bring Thompson and Malek in for a “Prince Off,” which consists of Thompson and Malek pantomiming a range of absurdist scenarios, from Prince stepping on a Lego to getting a COVID test, accompanied by a “funky lick” from Prince’s “Kiss.”
Two minutes into the sketch, the casting directors and Peele strain to make their decision since on the one hand “Rami, you look almost identical to Prince in costume,” while on the other, Kenan even in costume looks “Nothing like Prince.” Ultimately, Redd tells Malek that in spite of his resemblance, “I’m sorry I just don’t think I can cast a White guy to play Prince.” Sheepishly, Malek stammers, “But my parents are from Egypt, right? And that’s in Africa” – which is met with a litany of “C’mon, man,” “No, no don’t do that” and “He tried.” Still more off balance, Malek fumbles: “Ok fine, but doesn’t Prince like – doesn’t he transcend race?” to which Redd rightfully responds “Not in this movie, no.”
I found the skit funny – not least because at the height of The Chappelle Show’s Prince sketches, I also dressed up as Prince for an epic 80s dance in college. That said, it should be obvious that Malek and I are not good fits for a Prince biopic, since Prince’s Blackness was central to his person, politics, staggering creative and philanthropic outputs, as well as popular perception. However, the unthinking dismissal of Malek’s Egyptian identity participates in the deeply harmful erasure of MENA peoples, and entertainment’s constant refrains telling us who and what we are, how we’re meant to look, sound, and talk, and more often, that we don’t belong.
These constant misreadings are at the core of my dissertation, and the endless (though not quite legal) questions of “Where are you from?” in the audition room were part of what drove me from performing to academia in the first place. More importantly, the skit trivializes so much going on behind the scenes, not least of which is Malek’s extensive record speaking about his Egyptian and Coptic background – including in his opening monologue. Moreover, after booking the role of Marcos Al-Zacar on 24, a show scholars, actors and activists have repeatedly condemned for its racism and implicit endorsement of torture, Malek refused to play terrorists in the hopes of more humane (and realistic) representations of MENA peoples.
To make matters worse, this isn’t the first time SNL and its alumni have glossed over Egyptian and MENA difference more broadly. In 1978, inspired by the blockbuster exhibit “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” Steve Martin and the “Toot Uncommons,” performed the sketch “King Tut,” a song which ultimately sold more than a million records. In this sketch, Martin speak-sings another “funky” anthem – ostensibly informed by “ancient modalities and melodies” – backed by shimmying black dancers in ancient garb. Much of the skit’s humor stems from the juxtaposition of Martin’s Whiteness with a Black musical idiom and sound, a dichotomy he recreated in The Jerk, which begins with the infamous line, “I was born a poor, Black child.” As to King Tut, however, the song’s lyrics state that he is “Egyptian,” “born in Arizona,” and most problematically, Martin’s “favorite honky.”
More recently, Tina Fey came under fire for the shameful whitewashing of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which cast Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott as Afghan. Alleging that she pushed to cast authentic actors, Fey ultimately offered this confused rationale:
“I try to make myself feel warm about it in the fact that, you know, Afghans are Caucasians, it’s Caucasians playing Caucasians. If you really wanted to go to the mat on it, you could say it’s not any different than, you know, an Aussie playing a Brit, although I’m sure people feel that it is.”
Americans have struggled to racially locate the MENA region for hundreds of years, and Egypt has been an especially liminal space claimed by Black nationalists, White supremacists, and everyone in between. The bipolar racialization of Egyptians as White and not-White has been central to these debates, and has often meant that peoples who don’t easily fit within a Black-White binary or American racial categories are erased. This US-centric thinking makes little sense for a part of the world that quite literally confounds US racial and religious categories, and MENA peoples have been legally classified as Black, White, Asian, Moorish and more recently, racialized as “Muslim.”
In Hollywood, this means that MENA Americans have some of the best and worst of both worlds: we often lose roles to bronzed-up White actors or actors of Color who supposedly “look” Middle Eastern, but are rarely included in diversity initiatives because we are legally “White.” Copts, an indigenous, North African Christian ethnic group subject to conquest, religious persecution and discrimination in North Africa and the United States fit only very awkwardly – if at all – in Hollywood imaginaries that smear the MENA region as solely “billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers” – or just as problematically, as homogenously Muslim. In his way, Malek has benefitted from this ambiguity to play a wide range of characters: the Zanzibar-born Parsi Freddie Mercury, or indeterminate (but broadly orientalist) Lyutsifer Safin, the post-Soviet villain of the most recent Bond film, who masterminds an apocalyptic bioweapon from a poisonous Zen Garden on a disputed island between Russia and Japan. Caught between a rock and a hard place of mostly White executives’ imaginaries, however, we are simultaneously targeted by racist policies like the Muslim Ban and devastating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that undermine the coherence of our classification as White.
Not surprisingly, many MENA viewers expressed bewilderment at SNL’s latest whitewashing, building on decades of MENA American organizing to resist erasure, as on the Census. Fortunately, due to the efforts of groups like the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition and my own work with theater actor-activists, the SAG-AFTRA and Actors’ Equity unions now recognize MENA (Middle Eastern North African) as an identity category that encompasses performers with multiple and often intersectional racial, religious, ethnic and national identities.
Ironically, “Prince Audition” ends with Daniel Craig waltzing in wearing Shakespearean garb, and getting the job even though he is completely wrong for the part. Instead of a cynical gimmick for creators to write their way out of the skit, I see this ending as potentially powerful. It’s a brilliant send-up of the over-representation of White men both in front of and behind the camera, and a missed opportunity to make this satire a call for greater solidarity. Imagine what this skit would look like if instead of erasing MENA peoples, we embraced them. Instead of pitting Black and MENA actors against one another, we found common cause. And instead of dismissing marginalized identities, we took their voices seriously.
As we face a long overdue racial reckoning in this country and the world, the time for not knowing any better is past. Contrary to Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos’ completely disingenuous claim that “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” Public Policy Polling found that in 2015, 30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats supporting bombing “Agrabah,” the fictional city of Disney’s Aladdin. For MENA Americans, the stakes literally couldn’t be higher, so the entertainment industries must make space for MENA peoples – by treating us as more than the butt of a joke and for once, actually listening.
Thomas Simsarian Dolan is a scholar of global MENA diaspora who received his PhD in American Studies at George Washington University. He proudly serves as the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalitions’ Academic Adviser, and will be a Fulbright US Teaching Scholar at American University in Cairo in 2022.