Thursday, October 24, 2013

‘Captain Phillips’ Floats Classic Racist Stereotypes of Africans


The film Captain Phillips portrays Somalis in the racist tradition of depicting African people as subhuman, wild, and without nuance.  This racist portrayal of African people has a long history in the American film and media industry.

My first memory of seeing African people portrayed on television was in Bugs Bunny cartoons.  Africans were shown as short, barefoot, wearing grass skirts, having hair like a picaninny, large pale colored lips, bugged out eyes, and mostly saying things like ‘ooga booga.’  Movies did not do a better job of portraying African people. I remember watching the 1933 version of King Kong and the 1950s version of Tarzan and seeing Africans depicted as cowardly, weak, fat, slow, and made to bear striking resemblances to monkeys.

King Kong (1933)
Caveman Inki (1939)
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)

Fast-forwarding in time, when I was in high school, I read “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, which depicted Africans as child-like savages incapable of existing without the direction of white explorers. There was a constant message being sent to me through cartoons, movies, and books that characterized people from the African continent as not quite human.

This disturbing tradition continues in the film Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks. This movie depicts the real-life 2009 hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates.  Every racialized stereotype about African people is present: Africans in the film are perpetually frightened, erratic, naive, and the old-school fall back, savage.  These characterizations are what stood out to me as I suffered through this throwback to racist stereotyping.

Captain Phillips (2013)
The Phillips character is presented early on, albeit briefly, as a loving husband, a concerned father, and a dedicated employee.  Even though Captain Phillips may not be the most sympathetic character, he is still shown as a person who has a life apart from his job. He is shown as having complexity outside his primary role in the movie.  In contrast, the Somalis are immediately and consistently shown as warlike and almost feral.  There is no abbreviated back-story for the Somalis.  Their piracy is highlighted the first time they are shown in the movie, as if their present actions encompassed all of who they were.  In short, the film dehumanizes Somalis by defining them solely by their piracy, while Captain Philips is humanized as a complex individual who needs to make hard choices to survive. 
Captain Phillips (2013)
I was so disturbed by this two plus hours of throwback racist imagery that I vented my feelings about it on social media after I left the theater.  Many people responded in agreement, saying they got the same impression just from the previews.  There were those who said they did not interpret the Somali characters that way at all. These comments included:

They hijack ships and hold people hostage. How is that not feral?
They were pirates, should they have worn funny hats and costumes?
All I know is I didn't come out of the theater thinking all Africans must be that way

More than signaling disagreement, statements like these show that people have little sense of the historic and systematic portrayal of Africans and Black people in general as bestial buffoons. Ignorance of this history in American media does not mean it does not exist.  In fact, these stereotypical racialized images of African people are easier to pass off because people are not aware of the tradition of depicting Africans and American Blacks in this manner.  The amount of eye bucking, clumsiness, and irrational animalism all seemed unnecessary but very in line with the stereotypical dehumanization of Blacks in the history of American films.  

Captain Phillips (2013)
This observation is not an indictment of the actors. I like Tom Hanks as an actor just as much as the next person.  However, this film like many others reflects a  pattern of creating caricatures of racial groups.  Racism is not just about personal feelings, but more about institutional practices or customs so ingrained in our culture that it just seems normal to depict Africans as unlike “us” as possible; as less than human.  Over time, the stereotypical depiction of racialized groups is accepted, defended, and the existence of it denied.  

If you are someone who doesn’t see it, then you may be in the position of never feeling embarrassed or insulted while witnessing a dehumanizing depiction of a group of people you share an affinity with.  See the below link for a  brief but powerful scene in the film, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, when Bruce Lee (played by Jason Scott Lee) feels uncomfortable and deeply disturbed when, while on a date with his future wife (Linda), they go and watch a film that portrays a Chinese person as a servile bumbling caricature of a human.  Most people in the theater, including Linda, are all laughing at the caricature, because they don’t identify with the Chinese character.  Lee didn’t find it funny, and when Linda recognizes what she and others are laughing at, she stops laughing.


In the end, I am asking that people as consumers be mindful of these depictions in the media.  Do not be so quick to deny they are happening.  Demand better from those who produce our “entertainment.”  Most of all, speak up when you do notice that something is wrong, because I guarantee you are not the only one who feels this way.