Wrong Side of the Story: How “Captain Phillips” Affected a Somali Community
by D.L. Mayfield
My friend was celebrating Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic holiday commemorating the feast of Abraham, like everyone else was: by going to the Mall of America. I went with her and her family, wearing the clothes she had given me for the occasion. My dress was colorful and flowy; we wandered around the mall and people-watched. It was still a bit early, but the large East African diaspora in the middle of the Midwest was already beginning to pour in. Families, as far as the eye can see, laughing husbands, smiling mothers, children running and shrieking, everyone dressed up in their best clothes, shopping, riding the carousel. I followed my friends, insecure in my outfit, feeling like an imposter or worse—someone playing dress up. The clothes that hung so elegantly on my friends looked like a costume on me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had done something wrong, just by trying to fit in, to look like everyone else, to celebrate a day and a culture that is not my own.
After a few hours, my friend took off to go see the movie Captain Phillips in the the theater, while I headed home. Later, I asked her what she thought of the film. Oh my gosh, she said, it was amazing. Really? I asked, slightly taken aback. Yeah, she said, the whole theater couldn’t stop laughing. Laughing? I asked, at what? Isn’t it a sad movie?
Yeah, I know, she said, but we couldn’t help it! Although I was a little worried—the few white people in the theater started staring at all of us. But any time one of the Somali boys on screen would start talking, we would start to laugh. It was just so funny to see them up there, talking in Somali.
Why was it so funny? I asked, still confused.
She turned to look at me, and said it matter-of-fact: because we had never heard anyone speak Somali in a movie before. It was so strange, and so, so funny. She paused a beat, and then acknowledged: even if what they were saying wasn’t really funny at all.
I am teaching my ESL class, we are going over the short vowel sounds again, my students are patient with me and my chipper-squirrel-teacher persona. My students are older than me by decades, they command the room, they terrify and inspire me, these women who are in a classroom for the first time in their lives. We meet in the community center computer lab, people pouring in and out, hundreds of conversations I don’t understand, cell phones ringing from family members in Africa, good news and bad news streaming in, life a series of chaotic events, all orchestrated by the one, great true God.
Today is different. There are vans with large antenna dishes on their roof; there are white men in jeans and baseball caps and video cameras and boom mics roaming the hallways. I am young and new to this teaching gig, new to this neighborhood, a minority just trying to get my bearings. Some of the camera guys come into my classroom, and it looks like their cameras are on. “Excuse me,” I say, trying to sound more assertive, less unsure. “I’m teaching a class here.” They are nice and apologetic, but they don’t turn their cameras off. I start to see my class the way they do: a sea of headscarves, hijabs, clustered around a table. Exotics. Inscrutable foreigners. Stock footage for the next time a boy far, far away commits violence against another.
I tell them to leave. I am starting to panic. They exit my classroom, and are roaming the halls again. I try to find people and tell them: you don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to be interviewed. In my class, where we are all the utmost beginners, I teach the women how to hold up their palm, straight to the camera. “No picture please,” becomes our English lesson of the day.
The students are edgy, unnerved. The cell phones are ringing in pockets, jangly and shrill. People are talking and whispering more than usual. Al Shabaab, the terrorist organization that likes to recruit young Somali boys, has stormed a mall in Kenya, killing people and holding more hostage. The news comes in fits and starts, and I find myself in the midst of a community holding its collective breath.
Outside, the camera crews continue to grow, flocks of crows waiting to descend at the first hint of weakness.
A few weeks later, there is another camera crew in the hallway. This time they are interviewing one of the actors in the new film, Captain Phillips. I don’t know which boy they are interviewing; I am too busy trying to communicate the intricacies of short vowel sounds next door. The producer pokes his head in and asks if I could be a bit more quiet; I smile blandly but inwardly I am a smoldering flame of annoyance.
I haven’t seen the film. I ask my students about it, but no one seems to know anything. Ahmed, the computer lab monitor, talks to me about it a bit. Three of the four main Somali boys in the movie are from this neighborhood, he tells me. They got picked to play opposite Tom Hanks. One of them, Barkhad Abdi, might get an Oscar nomination. I am impressed, I want to poke my head into the room next door, I want a glimmer of stardust to land on me. But there are classes to teach, the hard work of trying to make it in America to accomplish.
I go home and research Captain Phillips a bit more. Tom Hanks looks older and sturdier, but he is still the everyman I know him to be from my childhood. But now, after living and working in my new neighborhood for over a year, the one I share with thousands and thousands of East African immigrants, the Somali boys in the movie look familiar to me as well. They are the Everyboys, tall and skinny and fond of trash-talking each other over a game of pool. My husband, a counselor, works at a drop-in youth center with Somali boys, the ones the movie depicts as fishermen, pirates, or nothing-in-between. I work with the mothers and grandmothers of the boys, the ones who love and and mourn their boys–not for being pirates, but simply because that is the weight that the first generation carries in their bones, the sadness of cultures lost and changed, of sons and daughters growing up and away from you.
I asked my friend Burhan, a smart young Somali guy who grew up in Cedar Riverside, the strange and wondrous neighborhood where the Somali actors grew up, what he thought about the movie. For him, it was complicated. “For me, and others who know the actors, we’re still in awe of the fact that our friends did a movie with Tom Hanks.” For the larger Somali community, Burhan perceived a wariness and a defensiveness surrounding the continued portrayal of Somali’s as savages and outlaws. “Outside of Minneapolis,” he told me, “I would say that the Somali people feel exploited and misrepresented.”
One of my favorite authors, Chimamanda Adichi, speaks and writes regularly about the danger of a single story. For Somalis, and many other immigrant populations, a continued focus on the sole subjects of terrorism, poverty, and piracy in the media takes its toll. Burhan explain to me that “Hollywood had a choice: to highlight the so-called heroism of the captain or critically analyze what was happening in the seas of Somalia through a humane lens. But they couldn’t afford to change the narrative.” There was no room in the movie for backstory; single stories make the most money. Buhran is right; Hollywood can’t afford to change the narratives until we hunger for something different.
I listened to an interview with Tom Hanks and the movie’s director, Paul Greengrass. In it, they highlight the complexities of filming on a ship, the timeliness of the story, and the search for the Somali actors. Greengrass talked about a directorial trick he employed in order to help filming: “we didn’t want them to have become friends, because in the end the job was to come through that door and terrorize and threaten and be believable. So we kept them apart . . . And I think it got everybody excited. There was a definite tension in the air.” Hanks added: “It was tense. We were scared in the best way possible because we know the guns aren’t loaded, but those guys… when they blew that door open and came in screaming at us, I saw four of the skinniest, scariest human beings on the planet and the hair did stand up on the back of our heads. It was chaotic. It seemed like the rules had gone right out the window. In one way, we’re just trying to survive the scene.”
An interesting soundbyte, a bit of movie lore. But I was bothered, deep within me, by the assumptions being exploited and capitalized upon. The Somali boys, kept separate from the cast and crew, were so foreign to Hanks that he was legitimately terrified when the cameras began to roll. How was it “the best way possible” to make a movie? How was it not another instance of making someone the Other, the inscrutable, dangerous stranger, the scary, skinny Somali boys?
In another interview, I read about the producers, Kevin Spacey and Michael De Luca, watching the real-time hijacking of Captain Phillips in 2009. As they watched, they were transfixed, wondering to each other what the captain and the pirates could possibly be saying to each other on the lifeboat. The producers waited a respectful amount of time after the real Captain Phillips was freed to retain the rights and sign on an international star to be the lead. They took pains to cultivate empathy, to not make a ra-ra-America movie. The producers tried to do it well, tried to show both sides, tried to capitalize on the drama and the tension while being careful to cultivate a bit of empathy.
While the producers were at home, watching the news story unfold, dreaming up an Oscar-nominated film, fascinated by the implications of the story, a community continued to suffer the consequences of the dire situations they found themselves in. An entire community suffered in mostly invisible ways–plagued by violence, a failed nation-state, hunger, desperation, and a stunning lack of nuanced attention in the western media. The Somali boys, peons in an international organized crime racket, were assassinated, their blood spilt for a desperate chance. Another set of casualties in a war without boundaries, another heart-stopping moment for mothers and grandmothers from Minnesota to Somalia.
It was a fascinating story, and we knew all along who would win.
I watch the movie, and my blood is not boiling. It is quiet, thick, and hushed as molasses. I am watching an entire Naval ship aim their guns at three scared, broken boys. I am watching what it means to have an American passport, and what it means when you don’t. I am watching what is available to me in the face of violence, and I am aware of the safety nets that exist for so few others.
I am hollow at the end, shaken at how I feel like I could have known everyone, everyone in that movie. I turn to my husband; his face is pale. No one is happy at the end of this movie, are they? I am asking him with desperation in my voice, pleading for the answer I want. Nobody is happy, right? Nobody feels victorious, nobody feels a sense of rightness, nobody gets to be self-assured, do they? Because everyone must feel this same helpless sense of sadness, of empathy, a crushing weight of obligation to understand the world better than we currently do. For if we truly understood our world, with all the nuances and brokenness and redemptions, a movie like Captain Phillips would never have been made at all.
The film does not end with a victorious Phillips being reunited with his family or the adoring frenzied press. It ends with him in a medical bay, in shock, paralyzed by the very real psychological pain that his time of confinement and violence caused him.
The closer we get to stories like these–not just the Captain, but of the young men forced into lives of hopelessness and violence–the more shock we will experience ourselves. We will start to see students, instead of headcoverings. We will start to see people made in the image of God, instead of simple stereotypes. We will see talented actors like Barkhad using his language and his culture to tell beautiful, redemptive tales many times over.
And the closer we get to these other worlds, the more we will long for the day when the appetites for singular stories change.
D.L. Mayfield’s life is about 90% mundane and 10% cray-cray. She loves food and books and a good outsider perspective portrayed in pop culture. She gets very, very excitable when anyone mentions the phrases “kingdom of God”. You can find her blog here and on twitter as @d_l_mayfield.