Coming to a Campus Near You: ‘American Sniper,’ and Hard Conversations

Greg Kahn for The Chronicle

A student offers carnations to people showing up for a screening of the controversial film at the U. of Maryland at College Park on Monday evening. The Muslim Students Association had protested how the movie depicts Arab people.
May 06, 2015

Since its release, in January, the film American Sniper has been a vehicle for heated conversations about national pride or, depending on your politics, shame. And this spring, many of those pointed discussions have played out on college campuses, where the film has generated protests, counterprotests, and hard conversations about religion, race, and violence.

At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor last month, a student group canceled a screening of the film after a petition circulated objecting to its portrayal of Muslims. Counterprotests caused the college to put it back on, but in "a separate forum that provides an appropriate space for dialogue and reflection." A similar petition circulated at George Mason University, but a three-day screening went ahead, and some students organized to demand the film be screened again.

At the University of Maryland’s flagship here, complaints from the Muslim Students Association had prompted a student group to postpone a screening scheduled for earlier this month. But the college was then deluged with angry messages from supporters of the film, and the campus’s College Democrats and College Republicans stepped in to sponsor a screening followed by a panel discussion.

The swirling controversy in College Park presented a visceral picture of how college students take sides in, and can sometimes struggle to make sense of, battles that cut across a range of sensitive subjects at the fault lines of American society.

A surprisingly high number of the people I talked to for this article hadn’t seen the film, so here’s a spoiler-free primer: It tells the story of a former Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle, who was the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Based on an autobiography Mr. Kyle co-wrote, the movie chronicles his four tours of duty in Iraq and subsequent struggles to readjust to civilian life.

In the film, Mr. Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, does a lot of killing. The way those on the other end of his rifle are portrayed is at the root of why the movie has been the target of protests. In its petition, Maryland’s Muslim Students Association argued that the film "dehumanizes Muslim individuals, promotes the idea of senseless mass murder, and portrays negative and inaccurate stereotypes."

"MSA members were right to speak up for what they believe in," the university’s president, Wallace D. Loh, said in a statement to the campus about the screening. He went on to praise for its sensitivity the group that postponed its planned showing of the film, and the College Democrats and College Republicans. "Working together, despite differences in philosophy and doctrine, is a laudable example for us all," Mr. Loh wrote.

Flowers and Slogans

Downstairs in the student union on Monday evening, past the Panda Express and the Chick-fil-A, the scene was civil but not quite the collegiate ideal Mr. Loh envisioned in his message.

Students in hijabs reached into a box of flowers and gave them out to anyone with a free hand. Evidence of recent weeks’ controversy was tied, literally, to the flowers themselves. Words like "raghead" appeared on slips of paper attached to their stems, quoting comments the Muslim Students Association said it had received after speaking out against the film. On the back were polite messages the group sent in response.

Looking on and handing out tickets was Breyer Hillegas, president of the university’s College Republicans, who said the Muslim-student group had brought the backlash on itself "from their desire to censor the movie."

Students took flowers and lined up outside the Hoff Theater. On the other side of the hall, students from the Muslim Students Association and other groups stood with handwritten signs. "MLK was killed by an American Sniper too," one of them read.

Another declared:

If you like American Sniper you may also like:
— Racism
— Murder
— Holocaust
— Fox News

Campus police officers shuffled by, asking the protesters to clear a space in the middle of the hall for passers-by. In a small lobby through the doors, a group of students had set up a table where attendees could write thank-you letters to members of the armed services.

At 6 p.m., the theater was about half-full as the lights went down. The movie began with the crackling sound of a Muslim call to prayer and a hulking American tank rumbling over a pile of rocks and sand.

The film’s treatment of Arab people is far from nuanced. Very few, if any, of the Iraqi characters are treated sympathetically or with even a shred of complexity. They lurk behind corners with rocket launchers, or endear themselves to American soldiers while secretly siding with a sadistic terrorist butcher who is, at one point, depicted taking a power drill to a young boy’s skull.

The racialized, us-versus-them spirit is hardly new in American war cinema, said Robert K. Chester, a lecturer in the department of American studies at College Park. He hadn’t seen American Sniper, but when I filled him in on what I perceived as the film’s thin portrayal of Arabs, he wasn’t surprised.

"That’s a fairly consistent pattern. It just changes according to the times," he said, citing dehumanizing film portrayals of Native Americans in Westerns, African-Americans in Birth of a Nation, and the Japanese people in World War II films.

A war film is a particularly affecting use of a powerful medium because it purports to bring history to life. For that reason, Mr. Chester said, a director must be conscious of the fact that moviegoers’ perceptions of American wars will be colored by the film, if subconsciously. "Contemporary people didn’t fight in World War II, but they sure as hell remember the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan," Mr. Chester said. "Film has a great deal of power and potency to claim authority on the past."

It’s no surprise, then, that the presentation of controversial Hollywood films on college campuses can raise eyebrows. So Michael Kossin, a Maryland senior who sat next to me during the film, saw the decision to tack an organized discussion onto the screening of American Sniper as a prudent one. On the one hand, he supports free speech absolutely, he said, but on the other, the representation of wars on film is rarely honest. "It’s always gonna be worse than the movies make it," he said.

Opinions and Discomfort

The panel discussion was uncomfortable, apparently by design. "We really invite people to sit, and to sit with discomfort," Kumea Shorter-Gooden, the college’s chief diversity officer and the panel’s moderator, told the crowd that stuck around for the discussion.

She got her wish. One panelist, David E. Vogt III, a Republican member of the Maryland House of Delegates and a former Marine, derided the recent unrest in Baltimore as a misuse of free speech that he said soldiers like Chris Kyle had fought to protect. His remarks did not sit well with some members of the audience, steeped in the Black Lives Matter movement, who had just spent two hours watching a white man in uniform shoot dark-skinned people.

From that moment, the question of racial treatment loomed large. "I was trying to keep count," said another panelist, Michael O. Spivey, a lecturer in College Park’s department of government and politics. "I’m not sure I ever saw a positive treatment, or even ambivalent treatment, of any of the Iraqis."

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who served in the U.S. Navy, worried about the cumulative effect of insensitive portrayals of Muslims on American public opinion, citing the recent killings of three Muslim students by a white man in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Throughout, a racially diverse crowd of students snapped and clapped in approval at sentiments they liked and angrily whispered objections to friends when they disagreed. When it was over, they stepped out of the theater, some tossing their flowers into the trash can. In the food court, only the McDonald’s was still open, and groups of students held court nearby with games of chess and cards.

Many attendees left the building to get on with their Monday nights. But some stayed behind, just outside the theater doors, to keep up the conversation.

Andy Thomason is a web news writer. Follow him on Twitter @arthomason.

Correction (5/8/2015, 1:33 p.m.): The picture caption in this article originally misidentified the type of flowers in the photograph. They are carnations, not roses. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.