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Does feel-good ‘Captain Phillips’ film unfairly depict Somali plight?

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
The Grandview Theater in St. Paul on Tuesday night hosted a special screening of the film "Captain Phillips" starring three Somali-born actors from Minnesota.

“You’re going to have to clear this area,” said the perky and control-freaky Sony Pictures rep, interrupting the only interesting interview there was to be had at last night’s “red-carpet event” at the Grandview Theater in St. Paul.

The gathering was celebrating the success of the young Somali-born Minnesota actors (Faysal Ahmed, Barhad Abdiriham, Mahmet M. Ali) who star with Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips,” which, when all the patriot dust settles, amounts to little more than a vile race-baiting vehicle and recruitment tool for the U.S. Navy and Navy SEALS disguised as a Hollywood feel-good action thriller. 

“We’re going to keep talking,” I told her, ignoring her obvious displeasure with me interviewing a non-approved Somali source on her watch, Omar Jamal, charge d’ affaires of the Somali Mission to the United Nations. Before he was shooed off the red carpet and into the night, I asked Jamal if “Captain Phillips” reflected the depth and roots of the desperation of the war- and poverty-torn Somali people.

“No, not at all,” he said. “They were looking for a livelihood. The film really only depicts these kids as criminals, going after money, it doesn’t mention about the background of piracy. How did this happen? It didn’t happen overnight. The piracy was the reaction to a toxic-wasting, illegal fishing of corporations in that part of the world. So the movie completely ignores that part of the story. It’s the story told through the eyes of Captain Phillips; the movie is a very good movie, but the community is concerned about the lack of the background of the pirates of the story. That’s our immediate concern.”

The Grandview was filled with members of the gala’s organizing group, Minnesota Women in Film and Television, and about 30 friends and family members of the actors. The advertised “panel discussion” never happened at the hastily organized screening, with organizers instead opting for trotting out the Minnesota actors (including veteran character actor and songwriter Chris Mulkey, who grew up around the block from the Grandview) on stage for a round of applause, followed by a screening of the movie.

But all of the Oscar buzz, slobbering reviews, and box office success has steamrolled over early warranted criticism of the film like this from Armond White, not to mention any other movie-goer who might question the high-def wide-screen image of the entire U.S. Navy hunting down three scared black kids.

Omar Jamal, charge d’ affaires of the Somali Mission to the United NationsMinnPost photo by Jim WalshOmar Jamal, charge d’ affaires of the Somali Mission to the United Nations: “The film really only depicts these kids as criminals, going after money, it doesn’t mention about the background of piracy.”

That’s the movie. Who green-lighted this? Why are we supposed to care about this story, again? And is it just me, or did Tom Hanks sound defensive when he told the Wall Street Journal, “This underlying hopelessness because of the geopolitics of what a disaster Somalia has become … just adds to the fabric of the movie that makes it rise above the concept of ‘scary aliens have invaded us and we have to make it home.’ ”

Spare me. “Captain Phillips” is a crass money-maker based on Hollywood’s formula and America’s insatiable appetite for easily digested good guys versus bad guys, white versus black. And while we’re at it, here are a few potential questions for the gathered actors and filmmakers that would’ve been good for a panel discussion, were it a real movie event:

• Is there any part of you that feels exploited by the Hollywood system?

• Did you know that the real Richard Phillips is being sued by his entire crew over the incident and over statements he made in his book, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” upon which the film is based on?

• Did the pirates really call Captain Phillips “Irish,” or was that a convenient trumping-up of the good captain’s Caucasianness versus the dark-skinned devil boys of the Somali coast?

• Did the pirates really curse America and the USA (in English, no less) throughout the ordeal?

Faysal AhmedMinnPost photo by Jim WalshFaysal Ahmed, one of the three Minnesota actors in the film, speaking with the press outside the Grandview.

Alas, last night all we got was sound bites and the red carpet, and a search for a decent documentary on Somalian pirates.

“Everyone will have their own opinions, but from my point of view, four Somali youth went out and went through this, and they didn’t do it because they wanted to but because the environment around them forced them to,” said actor Ahmed, responding to Fox 9’s Tom Leyden’s question about how Somalis are portrayed in the film. “The movie has different layers, and that’s part of it. Somali people are like everybody else. Some good, some bad.”

At that, the Sony rep hurried the young actor away for a photo shoot and another round of his and his buddies’ turn in the spotlight.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 10/16/2013 - 12:31 pm.

    One-sided review

    Well, we know how you feel, but does it really matter if the movie doesn’t delve into the pirate’s backstories? Maybe someday sombody will make a documentary on the making of a Somalian pirate, but this is not that, nor does it claim to be any such thing. And no pirate was forced into his profession. Each made a conscious choice to kidnap and ransom innocent people and property. It’s an evil and despicable act not unlike kidnapping innocents from their own homes for ransom. These assailants need a much larger deterrent to stop them from continuing these cowardly attacks on international vessels.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/16/2013 - 12:58 pm.

      Thanks Mac

      I’d say this “review” wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, but for the lack of paper. Walsh apparently has a very fluid set of morals, where your actions really can’t be judged right or wrong unless we understand why you acted the way you did. Maybe the condescending Mr. Walsh can enlighten me on how misunderstood Osama was in Zero Dark Thirty? I don’t whether to laugh or just vomit.

  2. Submitted by Gary Hill on 10/16/2013 - 02:16 pm.

    Inaccurate quote

    Omar Jamal says, “The piracy was the reaction to a toxic-wasting, illegal fishing of corporations in that part of the world. So the movie completely ignores that part of the story.” This is incorrect. One of the pirates explicitly tells Captain Phillips that western fishing techniques destroyed his livelihood. The abject poverty of the Somalis and some of the coercion behind their decision to resort to piracy were also quite clear. Seems like neither the reviewer or Jamal actually saw the movie.

    • Submitted by Jack Jones on 10/19/2013 - 10:30 pm.

      Inaccurate Quote

      I agree with you. The movie quite clearly stated that their fishing was destroyed by forces not of their making. To say that the pirates were depicted as “bad” makes me feel that the writer did not watch the movie. I found them to be sympathetic characters, caught between poverty and clan bosses who also took advantage of them. I think most viewers hearts went out to them.

      I found the article arrogant and ill-informed.

      Somali has been in turmoil for years. The clans overthrew a military government and since that time there has been little peace. Once the military government was overthrown, the clans fought among themselves for power. In the meantime, with no stable government and no coast guard, their coasts went unguarded. There is considerable evidence that the dumping was done through agreements with the clans that called for an exchange of guns for dumping privileges. Italy, France and Germany were the main dumpers, as well as Somali hospitals. Reality is always so messy, isn’t it Mr. Walsh? So much easier to just rattle the chains than to take responsibility for what you write.

      Further, Mr. Walsh attempts to assassinate Captain Phillips’ character. I imagine, being human, the captain is far from perfect. Does that mean that the United States should not attempt to rescue him? If he were a coward, does that mean he should not be rescued? You exercise some highly suspect logic, Mr. Walsh.

      To all others, it was a great movie. Watch it by all means. So very suspenseful with wonderful acting.

      Perhaps Mr. Walsh, were he not so intent upon criticism, could speak of the absolutely wonderful performances given by the amateur Somali actors, who live in Minnesota, particularly Barkhad Abdi. Mr. Abdi gave Tom Hanks a run for his money. Why not do something positive, Mr. Walsh, other than just run you mouth, and promote Mr,. Abdi. Become a mentor for his career. You have the money and some influence. He was great.

  3. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 10/16/2013 - 02:36 pm.

    regardless of accuracy

    The Somalians who played the pirate characters were outstanding actors. The Muse character was under just as much pressure as Captain Phillips was to “do his job.” If he was to go back home with only the $30,000 he would have been killed. Even though this is never stated in the movie, the pressure can be seen on Muse’s face. I would be surprised if this movie doesn’t get a boatload of Academy awards.

  4. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 10/16/2013 - 03:43 pm.

    for a much better story on Somalia

    i enjoyed this recent New Yorker piece on a struggling chef in Mogadishu

  5. Submitted by Abdi Ba on 11/07/2013 - 12:13 am.

    Why are you quoting Omar Jamal?

    A Minnesota Public Radio article states that Omar Jamal “remains controversial within his own community.” He has made inappropriate comments such as calling the city of Minneapolis a “slaughterhouse for immigrants.” It also states that “a jury convicted him of (felony) lying to immigration officials.”

    Why are you quoting him as a legitimate representative of the Somali community?

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