Hanna Flint is the author of the intimate and revealing memoir, "Strong Female Character: What Movies Teach Us."
In the book, Flint explores her career through the life and lens of film and explains how she became one of the leading film critics of her generation. Since she is of mixed British and North African heritage, Flint is especially interested in how the movie industry portrays women and ethnic minorities. And she has some ideas about how movies could do a better job of reflecting our multicultural society.
"There's so much I've learned from watching movies that have taught me, for better and for worse, how to be a woman, a woman of color, a person of Arab heritage," Flint told Wisconsin Public Radio's "BETA."
Flint said she wanted to write a book that, had she read as a teenager, would have made her feel seen and helped her understand that some depictions onscreen are distorted.
For example, Flint describes her first viewing of Disney's 1992 film, "Aladdin" as "a major awakening."
"(It) was the first time I'd really seen what someone who looked like me, or as close to a mixed kid of English Arab North African heritage who shares some of my features, could look like from a character created by white men in L.A.," Flint said. "There's that weird sex scene where Jafar puts her in a red bikini, and I say in the book, 'She could give Princess Leia's gold bikini a run for its money, just how sexualized it was.'"
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Flint discovered a documentary called "Bezness as Usual," which has some strange parallels to her own life.
"It's hard to find films about Tunisia or set in Tunisia," Flint said. Her father, Saief Zammel, was born in Tunisia.
"Bezness as Usual" explores how, during the 1970s, young Muslim men seduced European women on vacation as a way of getting by. This phenomenon is of particular interest to the documentary's director, Alex Pitstra, since he was the result of this kind of encounter. Pistra's father is a Tunisian playboy and his mother is Dutch.
"And certainly for me, it's been interesting over the last few years, where my biological father has tried to get in touch," Flint explained. "Watching that documentary certainly made me feel I can have a connection to Tunisia without having him included, or at least while I'm not really ready to kind of open that Pandora's box."
Last year, Flint visited Tunisia for the first time. She said "it was the most magical experience."
She had the chance to travel down to Tozeur, where "Star Wars" was filmed.
"As a massive 'Star Wars' fan, that meant so much to me to be able to visit some of the sets ... see the places and learn about how rich Tunisia is when it comes to providing a backdrop to so many of the movies that I love," Flint said.
Throughout her book, Flint discusses a variety of film stereotypes, including the Arab stereotypes known as "the three B syndrome — billionaires, bombers and bellydancers."
"So we get the billionaires, which originally was coming to shape sheik characters. And obviously that started back in the silent film," she said. As Flint writes in her book: "The 1921 silent film, 'The Sheik' has every Orientalist trop going with Italian silent film star Rudolph Valentino playing the Algerian Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan."
At one point in "The Sheik," Hassan declares: "When an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her!" But (spoiler alert) Hassan is not really Algerian. He's a British-Spanish orphan raised by the old sheik. His white origin is revealed by the end of the film and as a result, any heroic connection that Hassan may have with Arabs is retconned.
"And then we get to 'Wonder Woman 1984' and you've got Amr Waked who suddenly wants to use his wish to take back the country. And he's just a wicked character. And it's like, Oh, God, please, Patty (Jenkins, director)."
The bombers, of course, are terrorists. At first, it was Russian terrorists, then it was the IRA. Flint said that the Palestinian terrorists now seem to be the bombers of choice.
"'True Lies' is a film that I used to love when I was a kid," Flint said. "But then you kind of grow up like, 'Wow, this is a really bad stereotype of Palestinian people.' And there's been plenty of films that use that similar vein because Palestinians are very rarely positioned as the underdogs in this kind of conflict, especially on screen."
What is the one movie that has taught Flint the most about herself and helped her to accept herself?
"I have to say, 'Love & Basketball.' That really made me accept myself as kind of an assertive person," she said.
Flint used to play basketball from the age of 11 up until she graduated from the University of Nottingham. She played National League for a decade and also played some England squad games.
The protagonist in "Love & Basketball" is Monica Wright, played by Sanaa Lathan.
"She's African American," Flint said. "I'm like a mix, you know, a kid from the UK living in Doncaster."
There's plenty about their experiences that are different, Flint explained. But there were plenty of similarities, too.
"But she was a woman of color who loved sports, who had that tomboy quality, who was dressed in sweats," Flint said. "She could get dressed up, but she also was really happy wearing her light tracksuits. And she was so passionate and quite assertive and blunt about things. And I think so often women like that are seen as difficult or bossy."
"Seeing Monica in that film, that really just inspired me to just be okay with who I am," Flint continued. "I felt really seen watching that and knowing that I can be this strong female character. It isn't just literally about being strong. It's about being vulnerable and accepting that maybe you're not the perfect person the way you handle these things. You're still worthy and you have value and you're real."