'The Mummy' Is Not A ‘Perfect Film,' It's Racist Garbage
The Mummy is a perfect film – at least that’s what we keep hearing on the internet these days. Back in 2019, to mark the film’s 20th anniversary, we got scores of thinkpieces heralding the unimpeachable brilliance of the late ‘90s blockbuster, which starred Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and the palpable feeling that an entire generation of young people were simultaneously experiencing a sexual awakening, thanks to Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz.
Just last year, The Guardian published an article calling the film an “absolute joy” and “the perfect comfort watch.” Social media is positively crammed full of posts asserting that the movie is “perfect.” Not to mention that we’re getting merchandise, including T-shirts and bumper stickers, similarly celebrating its apparent cinematic superbness.
And, sure, we get that a lot of people who saw it at a formative age can appreciate The Mummy as a goofy, harmless $80 million thirst trap. But it is, and always has been, aggressively racist.
For starters, take the casting; in a decision that, if made today, would very likely enrage a large percentage of the same media outlets now vocally saluting the nostalgic favorite, the titular Ancient Egyptian Mummy, Imhotep, is played by the definitely not-at-all Egyptian Arnold Vosloo, who is from South Africa and has “Dutch and German ancestry.” And his girlfriend, the Pharaoh's mistress, is portrayed by Wayúu actress Patricia Velásquez.
There isn’t a single MENA person in a lead role in The Mummy. And the supporting roles are stocked with actors of various nationalities playing Arabs, who are usually offensive caricatures. Ostensibly the film’s comic relief, the fez-wearing Beni reads like a cartoonishly sniveling, duplicitous Arab stereotype (who is treated like absolute human garbage by Fraser’s character Rick) which the movie attempts to sidestep because he’s actually supposed to be Hungarian, and is played by a white American actor.
Regardless film is a veritable parade of reprehensible stereotypes; Arab characters are routinely portrayed as either bloodthirsty, horny, or bloodthirstily horny. Such as in the scene in which a sea of Egyptian prisoners cheer on the execution of Rick (who weirdly is a fellow prisoner), and the warden will only release him in exchange for money and sex.
Throughout the movie Egyptian characters are repeatedly depicted as dirty, smelly, and generally uncivilized compared to the American and British leads and, more often than not, they only serve as narrative cannon fodder; disposable redshirts to establish the perils posed to our white, colonialist characters.
And while the same criticisms could be levelled at similarly-acclaimed, obvious antecedents like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy takes many of Indiana Jones’ problems and manages to crank them up to 11. Random Arab characters seem to have the superpowers of Jason Voorhees, such as when a small army sneaks onto a riverboat undetected and one … magically manifests in a bathroom mirror? Later on a guy is still trying to stab random people while literally on fire, before being triumphantly gunned down by American cowboys as they literally shout “Yahoo!” – which, seeing as this was the late ‘90s, may have actually been a product placement.
Most egregiously, at one point, pretty much every non-white person in Cairo falls under Imhotep’s spell. So Rick’s solution is to … run them all over with a goddamn car. Again these aren’t zombies, or vampires, or vampire-zombies, these are literally just innocent civilians who have been temporarily brainwashed, and are now bouncing off the hood of our “hero’s” car.
In the end, this conspicuous white savior story finds Rick saving Egypt, and his love interest, from the brown-skinned monster who’s so horny and bloodthirsty, he’s resorting to a human sacrifice in order to resurrect his long-dead girlfriend.
And it’s not like these issues weren’t called out by people back in ‘99 – although these criticisms were often easy to miss because they were sometimes buried in praise. On Siskel & Ebert, guest reviewer David Ansen called the “Arab-bashing of this movie … kind of unforgivable” adding that it was further evidence of “the kind of condescension and contempt that Hollywood would not dare with any other group.” At the end of the segment, though, both critics still gave The Mummy “Two Thumbs Up.”
In his New Yorker review, Anthony Lane claimed that he could “scarcely believe” what he was seeing in The Mummy, suggesting a “party game” for Hollywood producers; “try replacing one Semitic group with another – Jews instead of Arabs – and THEN listen for the laugh.” He ended his review by adding that “much of Mummy is a blast.”
Meanwhile, former Associated Press writer Michael Hoffman II called it a “racist masterpiece” and a “consumate example of bigotry” that depicts Arab characters as either “filthy, greedy, slimy pigs” or “mindless, murderous zombies.” Rana Shanawani at Cornell University voiced her problems directly to Universal, eventually receiving a response from the studio: “The Mummy is escapist entertainment and as such is not intended in any way to be perceived as a realistic depiction of any group of people.” Shanawani shot back: “This is an anti-Arab movie. Please admit it.”
This isn’t even the only gross theme to be found in the film; in addition to the rampant racism, Rick routinely treats his Egyptologist love interest Evelyn like absolute crap; throwing her off a boat, kissing her without consent, and at one point, locking her up in a bedroom to prevent her from going on his expedition to ancient ruins – you know, a place where having an Egyptologist on hand might actually be pretty damn helpful.
Still the intense nostalgia around this movie persists, partly because of the abject hotness of the two leads, but also likely because this movie represents the kind of old school blockbuster Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. It has action and adventure, but isn’t tied to a pre-existing franchise – other than the 1932 Universal horror classic, which is a far cry from Star Wars. Even when they literally remade The Mummy it was hopelessly bogged down by the studio’s self-defeating efforts to launch a Marvel-esque cinematic universe starring Tom Cruise (now with Mummified powers).
But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the fact that The Mummy is a giant piece of crap. We're the first to admit that a lot of our childhood favorites have big problems – most protagonists of classic 1980s comedies should probably be in jail – but no one should bulldoze past those problems just to reaffirm their nostalgia. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are still in other, better movies, you guys – ones in which they’re given more to do than complain about the smells of foreigners and murder innocent bystanders. Although, at the very least, the Mummy franchise did give us the cinematic debut of a giant CGI scorpion with the face of a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson bootleg blow-up doll.
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Top Image: Universal Pictures