‘Captain Phillips’ star Barkhad Abdi and director defend depiction of Somali pirates

theGRIO REPORT - Somali actor Barkhad Abdi opens up about his debut acting role alongside Tom Hanks in 'Captain Phillips'....

Fate steered a climactic course for Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi.

The Somali actor, who immigrated to Minneapolis with his family years ago, earned the lead role in a movie with Tom Hanks as his first acting job ever, and might even score an Oscar nomination in the process.

What he may not have prescribed, life undoubtedly chose as his path, and Abdi suggests the timing couldn’t have been better.

“I was actually a limo driver,” the actor tells theGrio about his job prior to making the film. “And I crashed my car about a week before I got called to L.A.”

The call, of course, was a summons. It meant Abdi had been selected to play the part of Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, a real-life Somali pirate who led three others in a heist against an American cargo ship in 2009, in the upcoming movie.

Abdi auditioned for the role after spotting a television advertisement for an open casting call in Minnesota. He won out the part over nearly a thousand other local Somalis.

The dream deferred

Considering the young star spent part of his life in a country marred by civil disarray, the stroke of good fortune seems to be the American dream realized to its utmost extent.

In a way, it’s the opportunity Muse tragically sought but never achieved, a misguided warrior whose goals were predicated by power, deceit and financial voracity.

“People in Somalia have this idea that if you go to America, you’re American rich,” says Abdi. “To him, it’s like a chance he couldn’t get.”

While Adbi may have made it out of Somalia, avoiding the treacherous turn of his character, he understands how Muse’s mind could have become warped by dire conditions.

America represents both aspiration and defeat to the Somali pirates in the film.

For have-nots like Muse, the country provokes a kind of rage that spirals into disregard.

“I believe human beings should have enough rights to have a government, a law, school, job, to build your character,” Abdi remarks. “When another person doesn’t have that, he always looks to who has that. There is that [feeling] that, ‘I didn’t get that; I don’t care.’”

Not black and white: The realities of piracy

Based on a true story, Captain Phillips recounts the harrowing tale of Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks), a merchant mariner whose cargo ship was infamously hijacked by pirates en route to Kenya, where it was delivering international relief supplies.

Screenwriter Billy Ray adapted the story from Phillips’ book, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea.

After ransacking the ship, the pirates took Phillips captive in a lifeboat, holding him hostage and demanding ransom from the U.S. government to ensure his safe return.

Thrilling, emotional and relevant, director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, United 93) arms each adversary with wit, fear, strength and stamina, outlining the limitations and perseverance of humanity to achieve that which its heart and mind seeks.

Nevertheless, some critics have already begun to analyze the racial connotations of the match-up, suggesting the Somali men are depicted like a “Savage Darky on the Loose, or White Man’s Greatest Fear,” or as “soulless zombies.”

Greengrass defends his interpretation.

“The reality of piracy, Somali piracy, is that it’s international organized crime,” says the director. “It takes place off the coast of Somalia. It takes place off the coast of Nigeria. It’s wherever there’s poverty, you get piracy. It’s organized crime. The people who make the big money out of it are very rarely there on the beaches. They’re back in Europe. Sometimes even in America. So you can’t be under any illusions about that. These guys are armed gangsters who attack unarmed container ships and their crews. Take them hostage. Take them back to Somalia. It’s a brutal, ruthless business.”

In a press conference, Greengrass referred to an analogy that Donna Hopkins, coordinator for counter piracy and maritime security at the state department, told the BBC years ago, noting that it would be more difficult to eradicate Somali piracy than to bring peace to Afghanistan.

As Muse expresses in the film, pirates rationalize their convictions on a conflicted view of countries like the U.S., who they blame for overfishing their waters and robbing them of income.

Nevertheless, they work for bosses who deprive them of liberty and enterprise, and convince them of the need to take vengeance at all costs.

Hopkins also pointed out that of the roughly $60 million in ransoms pirates take over a year, only 15 percent went to the pirates themselves.

Such avarice often breeds fury and want.

“What I love about what Barkhad and the other guys did is they show that ferocity,” says Greengrass. “These are hoodlums…but of course they come from the desperate parts of the world. What I think Barkhad has also given you is the desperation of these guys, and that’s what makes them dangerous. It’s the oldest story in the world. If you’ve got nothing to lose, you know, then that man is a dangerous man.”

He adds, “It’s the real world of pirates. It’s not the cuddly pirates. It’s not the fantasy pirates. It’s not that at all. It’s the story about a man who comes face to face with these gangsters, and how does he survive and what does it tell us about the world.”

A historical encounter

To demonstrate the contrast between Phillips and Muse, Greengrass opens the film with two very different scenes: a life of basics and contentment in the mariner’s Vermont home, and that of rebellion and poverty in Muse’s Somali campsite.

The two men will meet and part only at sea.

Further, Greengrass kept Hanks and the actors who played his ship crew separated from those who portrayed the pirates until they shot the hijacking scenes on the boat.

“Hopefully, in an exciting, unbelievably, enthralling two hours, you follow the twists and turns between Tom Hanks and Barkhad, between a captain from our world and a captain from a pirate world in Somalia, and the emotions that it brings out,” Greengrass comments.

The movie premiered at the New York Film Festival Sept. 27, and opens in theaters nationwide Oct. 11.

Whether Abdi will continue with his newfound career appears up in the air. He told HitFix he’d “give it a chance.”

Undoubtedly, he has Hanks’ support.

The Academy Award winner sings Abdi’s praises along with his other first-time acting counterparts.

“There’s a swath of the population that is somehow able to keep a story in their head, fight all the battles against self-consciousness and the surreal, unnaturalness of acting in a movie,” Hanks says.

“Even though there was a true terror in the eyes of well, all the white guys that were on board the ship when [the Somali actors] came onto the bridge, what then transpired after that has to go beyond any sort of artificial trickery,” he continues. “They then had to get up and deliver the goods, and the fact that they did over the course of the movie and from the get-go, I think, is a testament to their power as creative artists.”

Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @CourtGarcia