Not long ago, I was at the Global Mall and I ran across a neon green handbill. It was a casting call for the Tom Hanks feature film, Capt. Phillips, and it stated that Sony Pictures was "especially seeking Somalis." Because I found this handbill outside a Somali money-wiring business, and because the auditions were held at the Somali Community Association, I can only assume that some Somalis are on board with this project.
It made me think, though.
On one hand, it would seem to be a step forward to have a film company insist that Somalis play Somalis. Unlike Black Hawk Down which used mostly Nigerian actors. (Or even The Good Wife, a show I love, which has a Somali character who doesn't look to be Somali).
On the other hand, I have actor friends who would argue that it doesn't matter. Actors are actors. They inhabit other identities.
But I think it does matter. When I was writing the Westerns section of my book Adaptations, I did a lot of research into how Native Americans were depicted in film. One of the films I cited, A Man Called Horse, particularly crystalized a lot of the controversy. Ward Churchill, a Native American activist and author, pointed out: "This droll adventure, promoted as 'the most authentic description of North American Indian life ever filmed,' depicts a people whose language is Lakota, whose hairstyles range from Assiniboin through Nez Perce to Comanche, whose tipi design is Crow, and whose Sun Dance ceremony and lodge in which it is held are both typically Mandan."
At the time, most reviewers agreed with Louise Sweeney, who said: "A Man Called Horse does have a documentary realism for several reasons. ... Production notes emphasize the use of members of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in feature roles and behind the scenes, creating accurate costumes, teepees, and weapons." Today, the notion that this film is documentary-like is almost laughable. Watch it. It hasn't held up well.
Our collective opinion has changed because there has been work done to educate people about Native American issues. We've come some distance from images of the Red Man and the Noble Savage.
Which, I guess, is my issue with this Tom Hanks film, however well-intentioned. Pirate is to Somali as Savage is to Native American.
Otherwise, would Jeffrey Gettleman (one of the best and only Western journalists covering Somalia from inside Somalia) have ended a recent article about the drought and famine in Somalia with this paragraph (emphasis mine):
It is important to remember that however plagued Somalia is, however routine conflict, drought and disease have become, however many Somalis have already needlessly died, Somalis are not somehow wired differently from the rest of us. They are not numb to suffering. They are not grief-proof. I’ll never forget the expression on Mr. Kufow’s face as he stumbled out of Benadir Hospital into the penetrating sunshine with his lifeless little girl in his arms. He may not have been weeping openly. But he looked as if he could barely breathe.