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The “Libyans”

April 19, 2013

The “Libyans” in Back to the Future are an awful, racist artifact of the decade out of which the film came. I’m tempted to make this face…


…and then move on.

But no.

The Libyans were played by Richard L. Duran (billed as “Terrorist”) and Jeff O’Haco (billed as “Terrorist Van Driver”).  Neither seem to be ethnically Libyan – or even close. Frankly, I’m not sure that’s a good thing or a bad thing, given how ridiculously they are portrayed. Duran was primarily a stunt person and seems to have retired in 2000. That said, he appears to have a small on-going role at O’Haco has had more success as an actor (including playing “Vulcan Elder” in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek!) as well as doing quite a bit of stunt work. At any rate, I’m not pointing the finger at either for taking these parts. Trying to make a living as an actor is insanely difficult, and both Duran and O’Haco would have had to be made of sterner stuff than I am to turn down roles in a Spielberg production.

However, I do find exploiting our fear and ignorance of Muslims living in North Africa pretty distasteful. We were on very bad terms with Libya at the time (1985), and only a year after Back to the Future, the United States bombed Tripoli. Here’s a BBC article from the time:

At least 100 people have died after USA planes bombed targets in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and the Benghazi region.

Around 66 American jets, some of them flying from British bases launched an attack at around 0100hrs on Monday.

The White House spokesman, Larry Speakes, has said that the strike was directed at key military sites but reports suggest that missiles also hit Bin Ashur, a densely populated suburb in the capital.

Colonel Muamar Gaddafi residential compound took a direct hit that killed Hanna Gaddafi, the adopted baby daughter of the Libyan leader.

President Reagan has justified the attacks by accusing Libya of direct responsibility for terrorism aimed at America, such as the bombing of La Belle discoteque in West Berlin 10 days ago.

The rest is here.

To be sure, Back to the Future is a (very good) comedy, and it makes fun of a lot of people on the basis of group affiliation – including rural whites,


the homeless,


and the socially outcast.

social outcast

But it’s probably pretty easy for most of those who watch this film also to feel sympathy for people in these groups. Pa Peabody is just defending his family, the homeless guy has a sense of irony, and George has a wonderful imagination. The Libyans, in contrast, are portrayed as nothing but killers to an audience which was already likely to feel antipathy toward them. Back to the Future is not likely to change anyone’s mind for the better. It is, to repeat, a great sci-fi comedy, but this is a serious blemish.

Update: Typos!

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