Captain Phillips follows a typical method of Hollywood movie-making that falls under a category I’d call: American encounters with the ‘Other’ (cue ominous, oriental sounding music). The star of the film is Captain Phillips played by Tom Hanks and the supporting actors and villains are the Somalis. There are many problems with this movie but I’ll focus on a few themes that emerge which is indicative of Hollywood’s persistent misrepresentation of people of color.
Tom Hanks’ character is portrayed as a stern yet benevolent man who risks his life for his crew. Phillips’ benevolence extends to his captors as well. We are shown countless scenes in which Phillips is sympathetic to the Somali pirates despite being held hostage. The Somali pirates are not given this inherent quality of compassion. Even during the scenes in which Muse, played by Barkhad Ali, decides not to kill Phillips, we understand it to be simply strategic; Muse needs him alive to secure a larger ransom. At one point an injured Somali offers Phillips water, but that is only to return Phillips’ kindness for treating his wounds.
Interestingly enough, the actual sailors who survived the raid vehemently reject the depiction of Phillips as benevolent and heroic. Crew members felt that he disregarded their safety and found him to be “real arrogant.” So why did the director of the film, Paul Greengrass, insist on this false portrayal? Allow me to speculate. Perhaps if Phillips were depicted accurately it would disturb the neat dichotomy of Somalis as barbaric and the central American figure as civilized. Maybe it would have disappointed or confused an audience that is used to (and enjoys?) seeing darker people as criminals.
Let’s shift to the character development of the Somali actors. There is very little. Whereas Phillips is humanized, from the opening scene of him kissing his wife goodbye to his rescue as he cries tears of relief, the Somali characters are one-dimensional. They have no past or future. Even their dialogue is monosyllabic. As a Somali speaker, I noticed that their pattern of speech felt unnatural and forced. In one scene Muse screams “I love America” met with awkward laughter from the audience. I presume this random outburst was meant to show Muse’s sarcastic wit. Instead it just made him look silly. There are many other scenes in which the Somalis are made to look ridiculous and stupid, outwitted by Phillips and the crew in ways that would insult anyone’s intelligence. Left with such a superficial depiction, the audience has only the senses to rely on. The Somali pirates are dirty, barefoot, poor, sweaty, and violent. And most importantly, they instill fear. As Tom Hanks himself described in an interview with the Telegraph:
“They are the thinnest human beings you’ve ever seen and they’re incredibly scary because their heads are huge, their teeth are really bad and they’re waving automatic weapons in our faces and screaming at us…We were truly petrified.”
It’s baffling to think that Hanks, or anyone else, would consider such a description as appropriate or acceptable. You would think he was describing aliens or monsters. But dehumanizing the Somali characters fits perfectly into the overall narrative of the movie.
Another interesting theme is that of glorifying American military might. As the rescue of Phillips unfolds the viewer is struck with a feeling of awe at the highly sophisticated technology of the US Navy. The Somalis represent David, the US Navy is Goliath and you know the former as no chance against the latter. Much like the juxtaposition of American as good and Somali as evil, the veneration of American power juxtaposes America as strong and Somalia as weak. Of course that contrast is a reality, but the question is why do these specific kinds of binaries dominate Hollywood movies.
Again, allow me to speculate. Much like Black Hawk Down, the last movie on Somalia produced by Hollywood, these representations serve the aims of triumphalism and propaganda. In an interview with Democracy Now, an actor in Black Hawk Down criticized the movie for the same things that play out in Captain Phillips. Brendan Sexton stated that the Somalis in Black Hawk Down were portrayed as vicious ‘dark hordes.’ Sexton states that the movie was approved by the Pentagon and had several script changes to remove any dissent or critique. Essentially, the movie was a recruitment tool for the military. It might be a stretch to say Captain Phillips serves the same purpose, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many young American men left the theatre bright-eyed and curious about joining the Navy SEALs.
For all of its overt stereotypes, the movie does make surprising attempts at giving some context to the piracy problem. Muse does mention how piracy is a means of survival and only fair in light of how foreign countries abuse the Somali coastline. But the efforts at complexity are meek and overshadowed by a narrative more interested in glorifying the heroism of an American captain and his military. In my final assessment, I agree with Neta Kornberg when she says “Why Is This Kind Of [BS] Still On Screen?!”