“Tyrant”: The Self-Hatred and Whitewashing of Bassam

Bassam from Season Two of "Tyrant." (FX)
Bassam from Season Two of “Tyrant.” (FX)

One of the most interesting things to come out of the three-season run of Tyrant was the handling of the character of Bassam. Bassam has been a character that has been an interesting component of my TV criticism of Tyrant. In fact, calling him “interesting” is an understatement and a euphemism. I’ll quote what I wrote about him for the Entertainment Weekly Community Blog in the very first episode of the very first season:

First, there is a white British actor (Adam Rayner) playing a Middle Eastern character. Did his casting alter the casting of Barry’s mother, Amira (Alice Maud Krige), so there could be some kind of continuity and for the show to possibly avoid accusations of whitewashing? Even so, the fact that there is a non-Middle Eastern actor playing the savior-type role opposite an actual Middle Eastern actor (Ashraf Barhom) playing the devil in a suit [Jamal] is quite troubling.

As you can see, I’ve always had a problem with Bassam being played by a white actor. The idea that a show set in the Middle East needed a white face to market to American audiences is ludicrous. It’s the classic Hollywood trope of having a white actor play Detective Chan or Othello; for some reason, studio heads think that the majority of white Americans won’t be able to identify with someone who doesn’t look like them. It doesn’t give the viewing public any credit for their own smarts, and it doesn’t give POC actors any credit for actually having acting talent as well as the ability to connect with audiences, no matter what the audience might look like. If white actors are expected to have the ability to connect with white and non-white audiences, then POC actors should be given that same chance.

Tyrant buttressed the whitewashing with Jamal, who is played by Israeli-Arab actor Ashraf Barhom. How come Barhom, who is of the region, tasked to play the “bad Arab” guy, while Rayner, who is not only white but has no cultural ties to the Middle East, gets to play the “good Arab” brother? To go back to Hollywood tropes, it’s the classic tale of having the white lead play against aggressive, sexually deviant, villainous “natives.” For instance, when Tarzan has to fight tribes of cannibals, or when the white lead has to defeat the Dragon Lady. This trope is even as recent as 2015’s No Escape, in which Owen Wilson and his family have to escape the terrorizing Asian natives in an unspecified Pacific island nation.

Now, none of this is to say that Barhom didn’t play the shiznit out of his role. Indeed, despite Jamal’s villainy, he still imbued the right amount of humanity for Jamal to be seen, at times, as a tragic figure who’s biggest enemy is himself. But that portrayal of Jamal is completely due to Barhom’s tremendous acting talent. Otherwise, Jamal would have been a one-note monster, instead of a complicated one.

Related: Monique’s Tyrant recaps for the Entertainment Weekly Community Blog 

Talking about Jamal, though, is a digression from the topic at hand, which is Bassam’s self-hatred. The reason I state Bassam has self-hatred is due in part due to the fact that he’s played by a white actor. To quote myself in a previous Tyrant article:

To me, Rayner’s Bassam hints at something unsavory that seems to be true to the character; Bassam has a large level of self-hate. Not just for his own actions, but for his culture. Sure, he comes from a line of despots. But he can’t separate the actions of his family from the overall culture of his home and the citizens that make up his home. He strikes me just as what he looks like; a Middle Eastern man who passes for white so he can get the benefits of living in America, and who lives in America so long that he removes himself from his home, his former identity, and his former actions. But, with Rayner’s Bassam taking this tone, there are new questions. Is this the tone the creator(s) wanted for Bassam in the first place? Does this tone make him less sympathetic? Would critics like me even see this side of Bassam if he was cast using an actual Middle Eastern actor (because Middle Eastern people come in all shades)? I don’t know. Such is the case with a complicated scenario of Rayner as Bassam.

The way Rayner has played Bassam (and the way he has been written) has been utterly fascinating to me and, if it was handled more adeptly at the beginning, could have told a very nuanced tale of a man who finds himself on an unwilling journey to come to terms with his culture and his ethnicity.

Shaun Lau, one of the contributors to my currently-evolving series #RepresentYourStory, wrote about his own battles of overcoming internalized self-hate. His story sounds a lot like what Bassam’s might have been; feeling like you’d rather be accepted by the Westernized (i.e. white) gaze than your own culture, wanting to escape and become something more than what you felt you were. The hard lesson that Lau wrote about was coming to terms with his own thinking patterns, taking the time to actively unlearn what he’d been told by society, and ultimately becoming a better, more well-rounded person because of it.

Related: #RepresentYourStory

It seems like Bassam would have to do some of this introspection himself; he has rejected his culture, his heritage, and even his name, choosing to go by “Barry” in America. He marries into whiteness, has kids who can be accepted into whiteness, and for all anyone knows is a coded-white individual in American society with a medical practice. He was able to cross over just like how he wanted. However, he still carried fear and resentment of his own culture, and this resentment comes out either in outright rejection of Abuddin, violence, or wanting to take Abuddin from its roots and transplanting the centuries-old culture into something Bassam would find palatable while he’s interim President.

Bassam’s self hate manifested itself into a Western-centric dictatorship, promising to lead Abuddin from the ties of the past and into a more, supposedly “structurally-sound” future. But Bassam’s future is basically just installing what he believes to be Western-only ideals, like democracy and free elections. However, as Leila herself told him toward the end of the first season, he can’t truly believe that no one in the Middle East has never heard of democracy before he came back from America. In fact, there are several Middle Eastern countries who engage in democracy, so yes, democracy existed in the Middle East long before Bassam decided to showcase it as a newfangled approach. Bassam’s belief about democracy being only a Western thing is just one of the ways in which Bassam’s idolizing of America could be a character beat worth investigating, but it becomes increasingly problematic since it’s a white actor playing the character. What could be seen as a Middle Eastern character fetishizing America because of his own internal self-acceptance issues becomes American propaganda due to a white actor playing the role. In short, Bassam comes out look more like the “evangelized native” trope (which could also be considered a type of “Uncle Tom” trope) than a conflicted man trying to find acceptance in a new cultural (and even racial) identity.

The throughline of Bassam’s internalized racism was abjectly clear in his actions after Emma’s death, which pushed both him and his wife Molly over the edge into Islamophobia.  Even when he’s lording over his own people in the country’s highest office, Bassam can’t shake the idea that the people—his people—aren’t a monolith. Instead, especially after the death of his daughter at the hands of terrorists, he decides to lump all of Abuddin and neighboring countries under the same “terrorist” label instead of trying to secure his people from terrorist acts due to a love of country and its people. The irony is that he acts just as much like a terrorist as the actual terrorists, and it stems from his own self-hate.

What is fascinating, though, is that Bassam’s discomfort with his culture seemed to abate a little bit after Jamal leaves him in the desert to die. During Season 2, Bassam is forced to come to terms with himself, his rejection of Islam, and the hurt of the people wasting away under Jamal’s regime. He picks up the habit of prayer again, gets back in touch with the common man when he’s a guest at Daliyah’s then-husband’s house, and eventually, becomes the leader of the rebellion. It was during this time that Bassam seemed to be the most at-home within himself. He was fighting for his people’s well-being, he was praying with them, and he was living for them. When Bassam acquires the presidency, though, his old self-hating habits come back, and he’s once again coding himself under whiteness, disassociating himself from the people he grew to love.

Bassam’s dis-ease with himself and his culture is something that should be analyzed and thought about upon any repeat viewings of the series. However, Bassam’s story could have been even more adeptly told if Bassam was played by a Middle Eastern actor from the beginning. A Middle Eastern actor could have brought his own experiences and the experiences of people he knows to the role of Bassam, making Bassam’s plight to self-acceptance even more truthful to real life. This kind of nuance would have spoken volumes, and it would have made Bassam possibly one of the few Middle Eastern characters on TV who is a fully-realized character.

However, having the role whitewashed takes away any truthfulness a viewer could parse from it. Currently, all Bassam ever became was a big “What if?” character. What if he was portrayed in more truthful manner? What if his storyline was fully fleshed-out from the beginning? What could Bassam had been if there was much more consideration given to his characterization and his motives, as well as how his culture affects him?

Possibly the best allegorical character for Bassam is Robert Downey Jr.’s character from 2008’s Tropic Thunder, Kirk Lazarus, which is somehow both an underrated and laser-precise skewering of Hollywood culture. Kirk is a white Australia actor, yet he’s known for “method acting,” including acting as a black man in the fictional Vietnam War-era metafilm in the movie. The most famous line from the film comes from Kirk, saying, “I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!” This is precisely who Bassam is. He’s a white British man playing a Middle Eastern man disguised as a white American man, who then decides to go back home to become a dictator of a people whom he doesn’t know. If Kirk Lazarus is supposed to be absurd on purpose, then Bassam is absurd unintentionally. Bassam is a character who shouldn’t have been given the Kirk Lazarus treatment.

What do you think about Bassam’s self-hate issues? How would you have written Bassam? Give your opinions in the comments section below!