Captain_Phillips_Barkhad Abdi_Tom Hanks

I’m not going to lie: in my mind, I’d been pacing back and forth in front of the new flick, Captain Philips, trying to decide whether to support one of my favorite actors (Tom Hanks) or skip the movie in anticipation of yet another narrative painting Africans as wild, reckless murderers who prey on Americans. The story, after all, is about the dramatic 2009 taking of a cargo ship off the coast of Africa by Somali pirates, and the intense moments between Captain Richard Phillips and four desperate Somali coastal fishermen who hold him at gunpoint in a small life boat while the U.S. Navy prepares a showdown. I was thinking, African villains, innocent white folk—enter the cliched good vs. evil/white vs. black/America vs. Africa trope. No thanks.

Enter CBS Sunday Morning and its profile on Hanks, the movie and the real Captain Phillips, which made me think a little more deeply about the movie, what happened with Captain Richard Phillips and how director Paul Greengrass chose to frame the context behind the incident. If you’re a faithful MyBrownBaby reader, you know how I feel about Sunday Morning—it’s truth-telling, thoroughness and respect for the arts. Press play.

I really dig the idea of how the first interactions between Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, a Somali-American from Minneapolis who plays “Muse,” the pirates’ shot-caller, went down; director Greengrass wouldn’t let Adi meet Hanks until they were in their first scene together, and in those first moments, Abdi let’s loose that line that’s been running in the previews like wildfire: “Look at me—I’m the captain now.” Turns out Abdi, a veritable acting newbie to the Hollywood game, ad libbed that line. And now his name is being added to Oscar nominations lists.

More importantly, though, Greengrass assures that his film delves more deeply into the “whys” of the incident—a move that helps put context and color and light on why those men found themselves together on that ship that day. An accounting on the making of Captain Phillips, mentions:

Greengrass, a documentarian, dove deep into researching the history of Somali piracy and the economic imperatives that drive it. The depletion of fish in Somali waters due to industrial overfishing was one factor that spurred the growth of the pirate economy on Somalia’s coasts, which had formerly relied on a healthy domestic fish trade. [Co-producer Michael] Bronner explains, “Somalia, which has been decimated by civil war since the collapse of its military dictatorship in 1991, was hit around the same time by an influx of illegal fishing, after the EU tightened regulations, driving fleets into new hunting grounds. Somali piracy essentially began as a reaction to foreign over- fishing; former fishermen would hijack ships and hold them ransom as a source of income. When it became clear that this was a profitable activity, it attracted the warlords, under whose power piracy evolved into an organized, transnational enterprise. Somali piracy is organized crime that’s truly global in structure, backed by financiers not only in Africa, but in Europe and North America as well. The boys on the boats sent to attack cargo ships — Muse and his crew — are only the end of a long and complex chain of players who control this very lucrative ‘business.’ The bosses of pirate conglomerates are able to live richly and ostentatiously, in a country where the poverty is so extreme that young men devoid of other prospects literally risk everything to get a taste of that kind of life.

Adds Greengrass:

We’ve had a lot of very good films in the last decade that have looked at issues of national security and terrorism, but I wanted this film to look at a broader conflict in our world — the conflict between the haves and the have-nots. The confrontation between Phillips, who is part of the stream of the global economy, and the pirates, who are not, felt fresh and new and forward-looking to me. The stand-off between Phillips and Muse is a thrilling high seas siege, but one that speaks to the larger forces shaping the world today. I’ve always felt that a story should be told in a way that is compelling and thrilling, but also thought-provoking.

Abdi, who was born in Somalia and raised in Yemen until his family moved to Minneapolis in 1999, knows personally the cost Somalis pay when a country is squeezed out of its primary source of income by foreign interests who seem to care nothing about human lives. He explains:

I think if things had been different, Muse could have been happy as a fisherman. But when he’s unable to make a living that way, and when he sees men from his village become pirates, he wants his share of the money that comes to them. I still have family in Somalia, so I know what’s going on there. I know that my character is in a place where people have very little in the way of opportunity. But I think today, all over the world, we all have dreams that we can live big. That’s the bottom line for Muse. He has big dreams — and since he has so little, he also feels he has nothing to lose by turning to piracy.

When Muse boards the [cargo carrier] Alabama, for him it’s all about business: the captain calls the shipping company, the shipping company calls its insurance carrier, a ransom is paid, and no one gets hurt. But it doesn’t work out that way, and he finds himself in a terrible bind that he knows will be fatal if he can’t find a way out. Muse is a foot soldier in a complex pirate-ring funded by powerful investors, and he knows he can’t return empty-handed. As the captain of his crew, it’s his job to find a solution. He realizes the only resolution is to sail the lifeboat to Somalia and offer Captain Phillips for ransom. He’s in a tiny lifeboat surrounded by American warships — it’s this desperate situation. Still, he’s able to maintain a sense of command and power. That’s what makes his character so compelling to me.

Now we’re talking. I’m here for spending $10 of my hard-earned money for a movie that has superb acting, an exciting plot-line and especially a point. I’m excited to go check it out—how about you?

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. That sounds so much better and more worthwhile than the preview suggested.

  2. saw it last week. LOVED it. i, too, love tom hanks (and wanted to see capt phillips largely because of him), but if abdi doesn’t get an oscar nod, it’ll be a shame.

  3. I’m glad to read Greengrass’s remarks, which echo the NYTimes review. Sounds like it’s much more nuanced and thoughtful than the trailer made it look–which is great. Just shows you can’t always judge a movie by its cover. Definitely spending my $16 (I live in NY–sigh) to see it.

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