Photo credit: movies.disney.com

The Movie ‘Zootopia’ Has More in Common With American Muslims Than You Think

Note/Disclaimer: My opinions and feelings expressed in this article do not necessarily represent or echo the opinions and feelings of the Walt Disney Company or the cast and crew of Zootopia. Also, there are spoilers.
I remember when American Sniper came out.  There was a whole controversy on the portrayal of Muslims in the film. I’ve never seen it myself, but what I did see was alarmingly racist comments aimed at Muslims, and reports of outrage from the Muslim community. I couldn’t help but feel a little upset myself: Was this what it had eventually come to? Hollywood making racist films in this day and age?
However, a few weeks ago, I was pleased to find that a step had been taken in the opposite direction with Disney’s latest animated film, Zootopia.
Going into the movie theater, I knew I would like the film, but I didn’t know it would affect me in the way that it did. There’s one big reason I related to this film:  It’s because I am a Muslim girl growing up in America, where terror attacks by Daesh and other hate groups are constantly broadcast on the news, and constantly associated with regular, peaceful, Muslims who actually understand and practice real Islam and are thus, completely against terrorism.
Much like the predators in Zootopia, we get blamed for attacks that simply aren’t our fault. At all. Let me be frank on this: This is an important film. And it is an especially important film if you are prejudiced, because then, this film is about you.
Let’s start with the city of Zootopia. A melting pot of predators (tigers, lions, etc.) and prey (rabbits, elephants, etc.). A place, where “anyone can be anything.”  Everyone has the freedom to pursue whatever they want to pursue, similar to the ideals of American society:  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet from the start of the film, the prejudices regarding the different types of animals make it clear that Zootopia in itself is kind of a hypocritical society. Rabbits are seen as too weak, foxes are seen as too untrustworthy.  Despite the failure to live up to its utopian moniker, life in Zootopia goes on, despite a shop refusing to sell to a certain species, or a bunny being given a less suitable job position.
The problems really begin when fourteen mammals go missing.  Determined, spunky Officer Judy Hopps takes it upon herself to find an otter who is greatly missed by his family; an otter who is classified as regular, sweet, and loving. Yet when he is found by Judy Hopps, and her reluctant partner, Nick Wilde, he is in a “savage” state, ready to attack anyone and everyone. When the other missing animals are found, they are in this same “savage” state. After Judy and Nick find the rest of the mammals, Judy is interviewed by the press, where she confirms that all the “savage” animals were predators, and innocently but ignorantly concludes that only predators could go to this state. After her speech is released in the media, chaos erupts.
It even ticks off her partner, Nick, who is a fox, and thus classified as a predator. He is understandably alarmed by Judy’s wild assumption, which triggers memories of childhood bullying, and confronts her about it. Judy, in her ignorance, asserts that prey could never go “savage”, unlike predators, and even foolishly tries to make Nick feel better by saying he’s not one of “them,” establishing a clear parallel to the saying: “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim.”
Nick however, like the rest of us, does not feel better at all, and gets even more offended, as clarified in his response: “Oh, there’s a them now?”  And then he asks Judy a pivotal question: “Are you afraid of me?” For me, this was the scene that both defined the film and fully established the film as a take on racism. Nick’s response to Judy is the bundled-up feelings of people who have been discriminated against, those bundled-up feelings put into words.
And aside from Nick’s powerful speech, the media takes Judy’s words as the truth and causes a divide between predators and prey with even more assumptions.
After all, predators are the minority and prey are the majority. Predators are an easy target for prejudice and hate. Predators get demoted in job positions, other animals move away from them on the train, and they’re (predators) even told to go back to where they came from, along with ZNN (yes, ZNN) headlines buzzing on and on about these “savage” attacks, the connection to predators, and the impact of this connection, including peace rallies held in the predators’ defense. Sound familiar? It should.
How many times have terror attacks been connected to Islam without any actual investigation or understanding? How many Muslim women have been mistreated because of the headscarves on their heads? How many times have we been told to go back to the Middle East, even if we’re not from the Middle East?  Just like the predator who was told to go back to the forest, even though she was actually from the savannah. Not to mention the earlier connection in the film, the connection between Nick’s horrible childhood experience as being a victim of treacherous bullying, and some of the things Muslim kids have to go through in school today.
As the movie comes to an end, a crucial lesson becomes obvious. The fight isn’t predators vs. prey, especially since it is later confirmed that prey could possibly go “savage” as well (just like how people associated with other cultures and religions can be terrorists as well). It’s fear that causes all the prejudice. It’s fear that is used by the hidden antagonist in order to turn the majority against the minority in Zootopia, to turn Zootopian against Zootopian. Similar to how the media easily turns American against American, not even just for Muslim-Americans, but for African-Americans, Latino-Americans, and anyone else who has ever been the victim of racism.
The film ends on a positive note, encouraging Zootopians and the audience to do what they can to bring more good to the world.
All in all, I was impressed by this film. The film may not have obviously depicted the struggles of Muslim-Americans, or any other prejudiced group of people. It may not have even have been the intent of the filmmakers to depict the struggles of Muslim-Americans. But the thing is, I related to this film because I am Muslim-American. Because I hear about the horrible struggles my fellow Muslims have to endure. And that’s not really something I can say about any other film out in America today. Zootopia may not be a blockbuster film that is overtly and obviously about the Muslim American experience, but it is a must-see nonetheless.
Zootopia is still playing in many theaters across the U.S., and will be out on DVD on June 7th.
 
Contributed by Fareen Ali