THE BLOG

Why Do Left Wing Stars Make Right Wing Movies? Or, What's Wrong With Captain Phillips

10/31/2013 10:54 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Who do we hold accountable?

When I first saw the preview for Captain Phillips, I didn't want to see it.

For one, because I generally don't like seeing action movies -- feeling on the edge of my pulse for two hours is not, actually, pleasant. And for another, because it looked offensive: the white hero, the black villains, another example of Hollywood reinforcing toxic stereotypes where the good guys look "normal" (white) and the bad guys look like "others" (dark).

No, thanks.

But then, between seeing the preview and the film's release, I moved to Minneapolis. I felt a sense of personal pride as I heard the Somali actors talk about the casting here, where eight hundred people showed up and the director chose them despite no experience whatsoever. And, I got a general sense from reviews like this one that this was a different version of the normal Hollywood spin--a more sensitive iteration, one that portrayed the Somalis as more than villains and less than evil.

By the time I settled into my seat at the St. Louis Park OMNI I was genuinely excited. My company helped: on one side of me was my (action-movie-loving) boyfriend, on the other a college girlfriend who teaches at an International high school -- her Somali students had been buzzing about the film for weeks.

By the end of it, each of us had frozen in our seats. Horrified.

Later I emailed another friend in New York to ask whether she'd seen it -- telling her how upsetting I'd found it to be.

"No," she wrote back. "I wasn't interested."

Immediately, I felt defensive: Shit. Had my ticket fee made me complicit? Was I now accountable, myself, for the wrong-headed ideas it perpetrates?

Frantically, I explained from where my interest had derived. We exchanged links to articles critiquing the movie, like this one about Somali reaction in Minnesota, which pretty much nails it:

"...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."

And: "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."

Unfortunately, there isn't much else to say. Aside, perhaps, from my boyfriend's observation that the film's breathless portrayal of the military rescue was nothing short of Navy SEAL recruitment propaganda.

For some reason, what saddened me most as I left the theatre that day was how the film's politics diverged from those of two of its most prominent stars: Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass, both of whom are known progressives: Hanks was a prominent Obama supporter, Greengrass made a movie, Green Zone, based on a book by Rajiv Chandrasakaran that was highly critical of the Iraq invasion.

And yet, this is what they made. And what is perhaps more depressing is how very unsurprising that is: a film with any more nuance, a film that challenged the normative point of view and told the Somali perspective -- a film that men with Hanks and Greengrass' politics might (I'd like to think) have wanted to make -- would never have gotten produced.

Then again, it's easier to critique structural failures than individual choices.

Take my choice to see the movie: I'm torn. On the one hand, I feel obligated to see movies like this simply to understand what's being consumed on such a large scale. On the other, I feel guilty about helping to fund to a project so toxic.

And what about the actors, who participated in portraying their community in a negative way?

Should I be judged for contributing to the profits for a film that perpetuates toxic stereotypes?

Should they be judged for profiting themselves?

If anything, I am more quick to indict myself than them: no greater good emerged from me seeing the film, I could just as easily have used those ten bucks to support an independent filmmaker whose values match mine.

And yeah -- the Somali actors were cast in roles that simplify their background, and that further dangerous ideas. But they did benefit, as individuals, as well: not only in terms of salary, but in terms of their careers, in terms of being able to help their communities, in terms, even, of generating discussion about their country and their roles. Should we really begrudge people who have already suffered so much disadvantage the chance to claim some privilege?

Theirs are complicated choices, surely. But frankly, I'm not sure they're the ones we should be scrutinizing.

What we should be scrutinizing is why American audiences will only stomach stories with dark faces if it's a white one that saves the day. What we should be scrutinizing is how a personally progressive pair of Hollywood players wind up making a film that is antithetical to their supposed beliefs. What we should be scrutinizing is how films that don't play into such archetypal, problematic tropes can not only get made but get seen on a large scale.

I don't regret seeing Captain Phillips, and I won't apologize for it. Nor would I ask the Somali actors in the film to apologize. But I would -- in fact, think we all must -- ask that people like Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass, people who have leverage in Hollywood, demand better.

Neither of them needed to make this film. They may not have been able to make a better one, either -- but frankly, that may have been the more responsible choice.