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.

15 comments:

  1. You dont like Bruce Lee because
    1 He would kick your ass
    2 Your nobody, an non entity
    3 The constant flexing of your arms is not impressive
    4 You have zero charisma and whine about inside ridiculous information.

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  2. I completely agree with the writer. Since some accounts of the story were fictionalized, you'd think they'd do the same about the Somali characters.

    Maybe more than a cursory mention about their loss of living as fishermen due to excessive fishing by foreign vessels and this being partly to blame for taking to piracy. Or a little reference to Muse needing to help his protective mother with money, the boys' education or lack thereof, the effect of khat, etc. Nothing!

    Perhaps America is still smarting from its loss of 17 army rangers to Somalis in Blackhawk Down and this is payback.

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  3. How'd you suggest a better, politically-correct portrayal of Somali pirates?

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    1. Maybe a film that shows the horrific poverty that the Somalis live in. One that shows the commercial fishing that is destroying the lively hood of these people, the Italian tankers that have been disposing of radioactive waste in their waters. The pirates are not just evil, selfish animals with no regard for human life. They have families they have to feed also.

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  4. I don't agree. I feel that you're purposefully ignoring the attempt to humanize the pirates that film makes - we see the scene at the beginning with the boat launches and we realize that for many of these "pirates", this is just a way of life. And again, later on when we see the battle for control between Bilal and Muse, we get a glimpse of the complexity and depth of what is going on behind the mask of piratry. Yet again, we see the anguish when Muse discovers he's been lied to and that his crew is dead. How are these portrayals racist?

    It's not racist to portray something the way it really exists - whether or not we understand the given paradigm. Maybe the portrayal is accurate, and maybe it's not, but given the repeated attempts by the film to get us to understand the motives of both sides seems honest to me, and in good faith. I think you're looking beyond the mark here.

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    1. at all times during this film the Somali's are either chewing Khat or screaming/panicking with wild eyes acting like they are about to kill everyone because they can't control themselves. i'm not sure how the actors agreed to play these parts as they are so obviously stereotyped. i understand that this is an American (Murica!) film to portray this heroic American episode; however it does this by portraying the Somalians in the film as savages who can't control themselves for their bloodlust.

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    2. Very accurate portrayal. ..!

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  5. And anyway, Tom Hanks is black.

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  6. She's correct. It's obvious watching the movie. Some people are ignorant of the mkultra brainwashing thAt takes place in the media . There's quite a few countries with pirates that aren't black! I'm white fyi. I am Irish and Puerto Rican and english. Asian countries have a lot of piracy. The directors chose a black culture on purpose... If anyone pays attention they drop the word american so many times and use the word dangerous and harmful and pan the camera back to the black guys then they we have the american back Ur going to be safe Ur in america now. It's so obvious theyre depicting black people and if anyone says its just art its acting its a movie fawk U lol. Pirates steal money because toxic wastes have been dumped on their land since their have zero army to fight back causing so much famine and death and loss of jobs. So they go to the ships who dump their countries toxic chemicals on their land and fight the guys and take their money and once in a blue moon they get a cargo ship.... It's life... Hollywood intentionally depicts African and Oprah ran a special on this's .... But it's so fawkin obvious in this movie it's not even funny .....

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  7. Have you ever actually lived in Africa? I spent ten months living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia until I was emergency-evacuated in May 1977, leaving with only what I could carry on my back. Guess what? They are savages.

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  8. lol this writer is being naive and stupid.

    This film was based on a true story, and unfortunately this is very normal off the coast of Somalia. This is the reality of how piracy functions economically on the coastline of this practically lawless and corrupt nation.

    The only thing that could've been done to prevent your worthless feelings from being hurt, is to avoid making films based on real events. It's going to take Soviet style censorship to conceal the truth of how terrible and unforgiving life is on the African continent.

    Really the only point I see to the argument you're making is "Hey man! we need to stop displaying reality on the silver screen! We should rather present more fantasy woodland creatures coming out of the forest and singing singing happy songs together! We don't need these "True Stories" rubbish anymore, it makes me feel bad!".

    To hell with your pro-censorship. I'll bet that you've never accomplished anything with your life and so you spend all the free unemployed time with a useless liberal arts degree yelling at people for being politically incorrect. You can't present Africa truthfully in film without backlash from your far left progressive religious ideology.

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  9. lol this writer is being naive and stupid.

    This film was based on a true story, and unfortunately this is very normal off the coast of Somalia. This is the reality of how piracy functions economically on the coastline of this practically lawless and corrupt nation.

    The only thing that could've been done to prevent your worthless feelings from being hurt, is to avoid making films based on real events. It's going to take Soviet style censorship to conceal the truth of how terrible and unforgiving life is on the African continent.

    Really the only point I see to the argument you're making is "Hey man! we need to stop displaying reality on the silver screen! We should rather present more fantasy woodland creatures coming out of the forest and singing singing happy songs together! We don't need these "True Stories" rubbish anymore, it makes me feel bad!".

    To hell with your pro-censorship. I'll bet that you've never accomplished anything with your life and so you spend all the free unemployed time with a useless liberal arts degree yelling at people for being politically incorrect. You can't present Africa truthfully in film without backlash from your far left progressive religious ideology.

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  10. Idiot! This is how most sub-Saharan Africans really are. Have you ever actually lived in Africa? If you can't handle the truth, then that's your problem, but don't try to impose your liberal propaganda on the rest of us.

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  11. People think I'm gay.

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  12. I've just watched Captain Philips now, since it didn't really appeal to me I waited till it came on TV. I don't understand why it seems racist to you, of course not all Africans are Somali pirates but it's a fact piracy is a way of life for some people living on the Somali coast. It's an interesting story detailing something different than the normal Hollywood movie. I find it's more racist to say the pirates are just misunderstood simply because they happen to be Africans and are somehow incapable of being successfully well organised criminals (that's reserved for Russians, Italians or white supremacists). Reality isn't always politically correct unfortunately.

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