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Captain Phillips, and Hollywood’s issue with outdated racial politics

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In the year of 12 Years a Slave and The Butler, Captain Phillips’s attitude towards race feels out of step with the times.

Damn if Captain Phillips isn’t one of the most thrilling pieces of cinema this year. From a true story of an American cargo ship’s captain battling piracy off the Horn of Africa, there’s a lot the film nails. Its star and director are on top form, doing what they do best, and doing it at their very best: Tom Hanks, coming off the back of the batshit Cloud Atlas, is excellent, while Paul Greengrass, coming off the straight-up shit Green Zone, picks up some of his Bourne mojo and shoots Captain Phillips like he’s the most skilled combat photographer alive. It’s a film that requires much of its lead and more of its director, and both oblige by delivering some of their finest work. But Captain Phillips lacks mission success in one vital area.

Hollywood has rarely trusted the black man to tell his own story. So often in black issues movies, our lead has been a white protagonist

From free blacks, to antebellum slaves, to their African descendants, Hollywood has always felt the need to step in and educate the masses on the plight of the black man. Only Hollywood has rarely trusted the black man to tell his own story. So often in black issues movies, the lead we’ve been given has been a nominal white protagonist, while any sense of the personal in the story is likely to have been diluted by a largely white creative team. Think Blood Diamond, which starred baby-faced gorgeo-throb Leonardo DiCaprio, or 2010’s Nelson Mandela biopic Invictus, that Hollywood guessed would only connect with audiences if the lead character was a white Afrikaner (Matt Damon, having a fight with a South African accent).

This year, things have changed. In 2013, we have three major Oscar contenders and one rank outsider, in the shape of 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Long Walk to Freedom, all of which revolve around black issues and are headed up by a black lead, while three out of the four have a black director at the helm. It’s likely not calculated; it’s probably just a coincidence. But it’s a coincidence that carries a lot of weight and meaning – these films have reversed expectations, and now the black issues picture makes sense. There can be no going back from the likes of 12 Years a Slave, or indies like Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice.

12 years a slave

It’s absurd to realise just how irregularly on film we have watched a key part of black history through the eyes of a black protagonist. But now, after all the Blood Diamonds and The Helps, the Glorys and the Last King of Scotlands, the idea has finally gone mainstream. As a result, Captain Phillips feels like a somewhat outdated film. At best, its attitude is just plain naive – if anything can make siding with the American heroes and booing the African villains harder to stomach, it’s that the US characters appear well-fed and plump while the Somali pirates are skeletal, a lifetime of malnourishment sunken into their gaunt features.

Putting action set-pieces alongside racial politics is not a good mix – at no point could Captain Phillips have its cake and eat it

There’s nothing overtly racist about Captain Phillips itself – in fact, Greengrass casts a sympathetic eye on the four out-of-their-depth fishermen who turn to piracy to make ends meet – but it raises the uncomfortable idea again that we need a white leading man and his white director to show us the way. It’s admirable, in a sense, that Greengrass and his team would take precious time out of a high-octane Hollywood thriller to highlight the plight of desperate Somali villagers just looking for a way out (the pirates are forced into action by unseen despotic warlords, who await the loot from any passing ships). But it’s misguided, especially considering the genre.

It didn’t make things any easier on Captain Phillips that the marketing department was fine with announcing, ‘From megastar Tom Hanks and that guy who did the Bourne films, a Hollywood thriller featuring the most helpless, poverty-stricken villains you’ll see this year!’ Captain Phillips’s origins were in the action thriller genre – the aim from the beginning was to take audiences on a thrill ride. It just so happens that, somewhere along the way, someone thought it was a good idea to insert concerns about native life on the African Horn. But putting giddily intense set-pieces alongside racial politics is not a good mix – at no point could Captain Phillips have its cake and eat it.

captain philips 2

As a true story adaptation, from the inception of Captain Phillips as a movie project to its final cut, the villains had to be Somali pirates essentially raiding a commercial ship so their bosses wouldn’t kill them. Make the pirates faceless villains, and you risk accusations of racism, in failing to portray them as people. Humanise the pirates, and you still have (spoiler alert!) the awkward ending in which the white men emerge victorious, in spite of our sympathies for ‘villains’ who suffer enormous daily hardship, which is what we’re left with. If anything, Captain Phillips would’ve worked better as a tragedy taken from the viewpoint of the pirates. What we actually get is a conflicted tale that doesn’t know whether to root for the affluent white men or four downtrodden Somali fishermen.

If anything, Captain Phillips would’ve worked better as a tragedy taken from the viewpoint of the pirates

The blame doesn’t lie at the feet of Tom Hanks, who grows more loveable with each passing year and gives one of his best, most human performances here (the ending debrief with a shellshocked Captain Phillips is guaranteed to silence your cinema). It doesn’t really lie at the feet of Paul Greengrass either, who has nobly tried to give us an insight into issues he – to put it politely – doesn’t seem to fully understand. It’s just unfortunate that this film had to come out now, in a 2013 full of black issues movies more ably assembled by a black cast and crew. For all its youthful verve, the racial politics of Captain Phillips feel positively ancient.

 

Featured image: Columbia

Inset images: Summit Entertainment; Columbia

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