The Representative Captain Phillips

Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips Still





Cultural and ethnic stereotypes have been instilled in Western societies, and are continually becoming stronger and more prominent in today’s globalized world. Western processes of stereotyping and the alienation of the Other have strengthened and become increasingly problematic, hence bringing authors such as Amin (2012) to call for action, stating that “without new sentiments, there will be little momentum behind scripts of minorities and strangers as equals, and within Europe, no reason for publics to question powerful national and state narratives of belonging that prey on fear and animosity” (p.113). The national and state narratives to which Amin is referring extend to the media of the entire Western world, and are frequently in both the media and other forms of communication. A prime example is the feature film Captain Phillips (2013), which is the focus of this essay. The film, based on a true story, depicts the plight of a captain and his crew aboard a container ship that is seized by Somali pirates. While the audience is easily convinced that the film portrayal parallels reality, I would argue that the film strengthens Western stereotypes and risks the further alienation of Western audiences from the developing world and its people.
In applying theories of Othering, stereotyping, and conventions of media representation to the example of Captain Phillips, this essay will demonstrate how this film is contributing to the solidarity of these issues within Western society. The final key point discussed will be, with reference to Amin’s (2012) former statement, the imbedded fear and evilness of the Other in Western societies, and this concept is highly visible and pertinent to the film Captain Phillips.
Captain Phillips (2013) is the story of American Captain Richard Phillips and his crew who are taken hostage on a container ship – the Maersk Alabama – by a group of four Somali pirates. It is based on the book that the “real” Richard Phillips and his wife wrote about their story. Director Paul Greengrass chooses to eliminate the wife’s storyline, and shifts focus to the story of the pirates, and more specifically to their leader Muse, and that of the captain and his crew aboard the ship. In an interview with the Economist, Greengrass explains that he felt he clearly expresses the motives of the pirates (E.F., 2013), blurring the lines of who the true victims really are. The film opens by establishing the background for each character; Phillips saying goodbye to his wife in Vermont as they head to the airport, and provides a vivid contrast as Muse, selected by gangsters in his quiet Somali village, is forced to select his crew from among a rowdy crowd of men. The plot predominantly focuses on the struggle of the pirates to maintain control and the sacrifice of Phillips for his crew (for a detailed plot, refer to Appendix A), but ultimately the American military is successful in killing the remaining pirates and saving Captain Phillips.
Captain Phillips (2013) appears to be a classic example of “hero” vs. “villain”. It highlights and brings attention to a prominent global issue and purports to sympathise with the victimization of innocent Americans. The paradox, however, is in the story of the Somali pirates; the film raises the question of the victimization of the Somalis as well. The audience is initially driven towards feelings of compassion and pity towards the life and poverty of Muse, until the ‘serenity’ is abruptly disturbed by the arrival of criminal gangsters who subjugate him to violence and evil, setting the tone for his character for the film. Undeniably, the hero that emerges is the captain, an outcome that raised issues among the actual crew, who suggest that Richard Phillips acted irresponsibly, and placed his crew in the situation by not following orders to stay out of Somali waters (Escobedo, 2013). Further, he did not give himself in order to save his crew, yet acted irresponsibly and compliantly with the pirates, which resulted in him boarding the lifeboat (Escobedo, 2013) . This strategic change by the director exemplifies how not only can film form an antagonist, but it also attaches specific qualities to the image of the hero.
An integral aspect of the analysis of the film is the meaning behind the theory of ‘Othering’. Its roots delving into psychoanalysis and Western philosophy, the ‘Other’ is anyone and everyone who is not oneself; It includes those who one may know closely, and those who may seem worlds apart. Our relationships to others is what forms human experience. The ‘Other’ further is self-reflective; in recognition of difference between oneself and others, one constructs his or her own identity (Silverstone, 1999, p.135). Further, the stereotyping process of ‘Othering’ plays upon the concepts of power and knowledge to generate definitions of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ (Foucault, 1980). That is, by defining what makes us different, we create judgments of the ‘Other’ and create hierarchies. In a broader sense, commonalities in Western societies construct the sense of identifying as ‘us’; we share societal norms that allow us to identify with one another and feel solidarity. Therefore, if you are not part of this grouping, you are innately the ‘Other’. Said (1978) places this idea in the context of the Orient: “a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience” (p.1). That is, the distinctive qualities that make the Orient – and other non-Western societies – stand out among Western social norms create a distance and separation of it within Western experience.

Othering and Imagination

Imagination is a key dimension of understanding media representations (Orgad 2012, p.16), and Western preconceived notions of understanding and meaning of the Other are central to the interpretation of Greengrass’ Captain Phillips (2013). In an increasingly globalized world, transformations in our understanding and in the way we imagine are largely shaped by representation; “the process of producing meanings [is] through the creation of symbolic forms and content” (Orgad, 2012, p.15) and thus is the catalyst behind our imaginative understanding of the world. These catalysts are a primary importance in the formation of power structures that media representations enforce. Foucault suggests that this discourse – which is perpetually generated by the media – produces knowledge, which in turn can generate hegemonic structures of power (Orgad, 2012, p.27-28).
Keeping in mind the banality and acceptance for these structures, the build-up of the plot as Captain Phillips parallels such power dynamics; the normalcy of the American suburban life of Richard Phillips contrasts starkly with the chaotic set-up of organized crime in a decimated Somali coastal village of Muse. In this case, the knowledge of Somali piracy is substantially limited by representations, both in the film and in other media; one innately evil and labeled the antagonist, while the other is the hero, and the one that the audience will predictably be rooting for to prevail. Ironically though, the audience is also subtly persuaded to sympathize with the Somali fishermen who are forced by outsiders into piracy.
The notion of the Other is of further critical importance to the analysis of Captain Phillips (2013), as it contributes towards the divisiveness and unequal relationship the audience may form with Phillips and Muse. Pickering argues that a characteristic feature of the Other is an ambivalence of response to it, belying its apparent fixity (Pickering, 2001, p.64). That is, we have a preconditioned acceptance of representations of the Other, highly dependant on stereotypical traits of former media representations that embed our imagination. It is with this that one could explain why an audience does not necessarily feel obliged to think critically of the representation of the Somali village; we have seen these images of poverty and desperation, and are familiar with these evoked feelings of compassion. Additionally, Otherness is a denial of belonging, and can be seen as an unrelenting sign of not belonging (Pickering, 2001, p.79). Undoubtedly, the partition of belonging and not belonging works as a defense mechanism, and a security of identity; by ‘us’ not being ‘them’, ‘we’ are reassured of being ‘us’. It is with this in mind, that one sees the ambiguity of cinematic representations in Captain Phillips (2013), and how the film comments on our relationship to poverty-stricken nations and their peoples.
In Amin’s Images Community (2012), the author puts this relationship into the context of European identity by suggesting that liberal intolerance in Europe alienates those who do not associate with this so-called ‘liberal’ identity. Accordingly, “negative feelings and associated moves to name and shame, curtail and contain, discipline and eject, domesticate and assimilate, are being defended – indeed deemed necessary – in the name of Europe’s liberal heritage” (Amin, 2012, p.122). Thus actions and sentiments in Western societies towards the Other are not only justified, but are essential to the protection of the liberal state and society. In its portrayal of Somalia as barbaric, corrupt, and villainous, one can automatically distance oneself from this scenario by invoking sentiments of pity, compassion, and even fear towards these characters. Captain Phillips (2013) thus further alienates the Somali characters and dictates the manner in which the audience perceives their predicament.
In the making of Greengrass’ film, the director purposefully chose Somali immigrants living in the United States to effectively embody the Somali characters (E.F., 2013). Barkhad Abdi – the actor who plays Muse – is a Somali American, and in reality relates more so to the livelihood of Phillips than Muse . An actor like Tom Hanks probably would have had to learn skills such as the use of weaponry, fighting, and strong swimming; Abdi had to complete intense training in preparation for the film. In an interview with Christiane Amanpour (2013), Abdi elaborates that when he was first cast, the Somali American community felt strongly that the film would be an embarrassment to Somali people. When asked about his interpretation of Somali representation in the film, he explains that growing up, “all I heard was all sort[s] of bad stuff about my country and everything going on” (Amanpour, 2013). The juxtaposition of the reality of Abdi and his American life to the character convincingly embodied by Abdi illustrates one of the dilemmas of cultural representations and Othering, and further emphasizes the importance of approaching media representations critically.


Preconceived stereotypes are key to audiences’ perceptions of this film. They are utilized as a cinematic tool that evokes a desired emotional reaction from the audience. Pickering (2001) suggests that stereotypes initiate at the ideological construct of normalcy. The naturalization and acceptance of norms is taken for granted, and therefore anything that defies this normalcy can be stereotyped. That is, “stereotypicality is authorized, and gains in authority, through this repression of the innocent, made to appear natural” (p.70). A Western audience takes for granted the state of Captain Phillips and his American lifestyle. In contrast – the life of Muse and his crew of pirates in Somalia – stereotypical representations are reinforced and legitimized.
Stereotypes specifically developed by Western media representations of Somalia are an additional factor to this film, as its turbulent history over the past twenty-five years paints a bleak picture of the African country. Structured Western ideas and imaginative narratives of what this African society entails create a baseline of understanding and an expectation of the stereotypical imagery should be used to represent this poverty-stricken state. As noted previously the director attempts to evoke feelings of sympathy for the pirates and attempts to portray them as victims to organized African cartels. Media that has covered the political turmoil and warfare in this country however, as Besteman (1996) suggests, has significantly oversimplified its cultural representation in Western media. The dilemma of misrepresentation thus raises questions “cross-cultural understanding, academic assumptions, Western epistemological biases, and deeply rooted American fears and prejudices” (p.128). With deeply rooted prejudices concerning Somalia’s history and conjured images that Western media has associated with its unrest, the imagination is guided to have specific expectations about the Somali subjects in the film and their lifestyle potentially further justifying the ‘Othering’ of the Somali characters and their lifestyle in the film. In Besteman’s quote, we must consider how these representations and assumptions not only reflect Somalia, but also are reflexive and critical of the condition of Western societies.
Pickering (2001) addresses the issue of stereotyping across cultures, and suggests that descriptively and evaluatively stereotypical images of minorities and outgroups act as sources of misapprehension and vehicles of ideological views and beliefs, and as manufactured consent (p.23). Media that utilizes stereotypical imagery and ideas of other cultures increasingly limits the ability to break the barriers of these stereotypes, and instead reinforce these limitations: such is the case of Captain Phillips. By giving a minimal amount of screen time and explanation behind the story of Muse and his fellow pirates, and by placing them within a specific context, director Greengrass is subsequently limiting the ability to imagine beyond stereotypical scenes and sentiments of Somalia, and effectively reinforce pre-existing stereotypes and judgments.

Evil and Fear

The notion of fear prevails as a dominant force in Captain Phillips; not only due to the violent, turbulent scenarios that play out in the film, but also by strengthening and confirming that Western fear of the Other is justifiable and necessary. Amin (2012) addresses this fear as European xenophobia; “the vulnerable, unfortunate and stigmatized are being cast as the enemy that society as a whole is called to repel” (p.124). Fear is furthermore innately connected with the concept of evil. It is through the framing of fear and evil that the media allows for a Western audience to formulate judgments of the unknown. Judgments are thus the connecting factor that creates a relationship of connection or disconnection to the other, establishing classifications of good and evil (Silverstone, 2007, p.57). In Captain Phillips, these judgments are not only formulated, but strongly reinforced and integral to the storyline of the film. As previously discussed, the audience distinctly knows which character type will prevail, and which one will lose the battle.
The ability of film to evoke extremities of emotion functions as a tool to establish relationships both between characters within the film and between the audience and characters. By developing sentiments of being threatened, hostility, and anxiety towards the Other (Hall, 1997, p.238) – in this case, the pirates – one is establishing an inferiority of the Other, and hence enforcing personal superiority among the known ‘us’ or ‘self’ (Orgad, 2012, p. 54). According to Hall (1997), the recognition of difference and the Other is closely tied to racial stereotyping; in the case of Captain Phillips, these stereotypes arise through violence, chaos, and even a sense of desperation among the Somali characters, and can hence evoke sentiments of fear in a predominantly Western audience (p.238-239).
As Eagleton (2010) describes, evil can be seen as a purposeless wickedness, and not concerned with practical consequences; it does not ask ‘why’ because its ‘raison d’être’ to proclaim that everything has no meaning or will, and is purely about the exercise of power on the subject of its desire (p. 103). The limited build-up of the Somali pirates at the beginning of the film provides very little insight as to their purpose and motives, giving the potential to view their acts of meaningless expressions of violence purely for the sake of sadistic pleasure, and further alienating them from the rationalized Western ideals and motives of Captain Phillips and his crew.
A key issue with the portrayal of ‘evil’ in Captain Phillips is that evil has become a taken-for-granted category of analysis and judgment (Silverstone, 2007, p.59). That is, evil is automatically labeled to a specific entity – in this case, the Other and unknown: the Somali pirates. In an interview with the Economist (2013), Greengrass explains that he believes the motives of the Somali pirates were clear:
“[They] are at the end of a long chain of warlord gangster activity that stretches far away from those beaches. I wanted to explain that this began originally as the response of fishing communities to over-fishing and toxic-waste dumping, but very quickly became gangster activity. I wanted to show that these were desperate young men with no chance of employment, and that they generally culturally worship America” (E.F., 2013).
Victimization is thus a trivial aspect of the film, as emotions of pity can be cast upon all characters. As the character of Captain Phillips is stuck on the lifeboat with the pirates, a relationship forms with the youngest pirate, a teenage boy, and a sense of sorrow and pity is evoked as the audience develops an acute awareness of the dire circumstances of this character. The depth of knowledge on the ‘evil’ characters conflicts the desire to label good and evil, and raises the possibility that greater evils dominate those whom may be initially judged as evil.
Greengrass’ comment that these people “generally worship America” is further problematic, in that it expresses the sentiment of the Other or alien figure’s desire to assimilate. Western liberal democratic outlook, as Amin suggests, pushes to define, contain, vilify and discipline the Other (Amin, 2012, p.134); it aims to rejuvenate the other into the confines of what is ‘good’. Evil is thus redeemable, and the audience is given hope that the evil and feared can be freed and turned good; if not, however, evil shall fail and be doomed, as prevails in Captain Phillips with the ultimate death of most of the pirates, and the capture of Muse.
Captain Phillips (2013) is an excellent representation of the present-day story of the American hero. It plays on pre-existing stereotypes and judgments of the Other to tell the story of how the good hero prevails, and the evil villain ultimately meets his doom. As outlined, by demonstrating uses of Othering, stereotyping, and interpretations of evil and fear, it exemplifies typical representations of distant cultures and antagonistic characters that Western society only encounter and imagine through media. It gives little consideration to a new narrative that could be told about Somali piracy, and therefore acts as a prime example of the current “state narratives that prey on fear and animosity” (Amin, 2012, p.113). Even the aspect of victimization and pity towards the pirates are sentiments that Western media has played on before.
Amin (2012) states that there is currently no counter-narrative, and no perception of the escalations of xenophobia as unnecessary and unjust (p.126). A critical question hence is does Captain Phillips have the potential as a story to create an alternative narrative: one that defies stereotypes of the Other, and that breaks conventional views of good and evil. The book, after all, was a different storyline from that told in the film, and the details of the actual events that emerged differed greatly as well.
A large aspect of the film and its analysis that has not been discussed is the significance of racial stereotyping. This issue has a deep, controversial history, and is composed as an extremely large discourse on its own. It is a topic, however, that can be applied and interconnected with the three key ideas approached in this essay, and has a strong presence in the analysis of Captain Phillips (2013).
Captain Phillips (2013) arguably does not bring a new discourse to the frontier of the debate of cultural representation and global issues in media representations. It does, however, combine two categories of sentiments that are commonly evoked with Western media: compassion and fear. This juxtaposition is what has generated an intriguing reaction towards the film. While Amin’s new narrative is not necessarily achieved in Captain Phillips (2013), the film does act as a complex reflection of where this narrative currently lies.

1. Amanpour, C. (Interviewer) & Abdi, B. (Interviewee). (2013). Full Interview: Amanpour, Barkhad Abdi [Interview transcript & video clip]. Retrieved from CNN web site: http://
2. Amin, Ash. (2012). Imagines Community. In Amin, Ash, Land of Strangers (p.111-136). Cambridge: Polity Press.
3. Besteman, C. (1996). Representing Violence and ‘Othering’ Somalia. Cultural Anthropology, 11(1). pp.120-133. Retrieved from: http://
4. Callahan, Maureen. (2013, October 13). Crew members: ‘Captain Phillips’ is one big lie. NY Post. Retrieved from: 2013/10/13/crew-members-deny-captain-phillips-heroism/
5. De Luca, M. et al. (Producer) & Greengrass, P. (Director). (2013). Captain Phillips (Motion picture). USA: Columbia Pictures.
6. E.F. (Interviewer) & Greengrass, P. (Interviewee). (2013). On making “Captain Phillips” [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from The Economist web site:
7. Eagleton, T. (2010). On Evil. London: Yale University Press.
8. Escobedo, Tricia. (2013, October 8). Controversy Surrounds New Tom Hanks Movie, ‘Captain Phillips’. CNN. Retrieved from
9. Foucault. (1980). Power/Knowledge. Hertfordshire: Harvester Press Limited.
10. Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage Publications.
11. Orgad, Shani. (2012). Media Representation and the Global Imagination. London: Polity Press.
12. Pickering, M. (2001). Stereotyping: The Politics of Representation. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave.
13. Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.
14. Silverstone, R. (2007). Media and Morality. Cambridge: Polity Press.
15. Silverstone, R. (1999). Why Study the Media?. London: Sage Publications.

Appendix A
The story depicts Phillips as a veteran ship captain who methodically strategizes and selects a route that navigates through known regions of piracy. It shows the pirates being assembled in a coastal village in Somalia, who then set out in pursuit of the ship. After repeated attempts to approach Phillips’ ship, the pirates finally succeed in boarding the ship, aggressively threatening the crew with machine guns. They immediately find Phillips and begin a negotiation process with the objective of achieving a large payday. The financial objectives of the pirates mission contrast significantly with what Phillips hopes to concede monetarily; Phillips offers them the ten thousand dollars he has in the safe, but the pirates demand millions. The crew, hidden in the engine room, manages to throw off the pirates by cutting power. When the pirates’ plan is thwarted by the wily crew, they agree to trade Phillips for Muse – as Phillips becomes the martyr in order to save the lives of his crew – and escape with the ship’s lifeboat. The Somali pirates capture Phillips, at which point the American Navy initiates a mission to reclaim control of the ship. After days spent with the pirates and attempts of Phillips to negotiate and potentially gain the trust of the pirates, the plot comes to a climax when the Navy chooses to take down the pirates. Before doing so, they manage to convince Muse to return to the ship to negotiate, at which point he’s arrested.


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