It’s disturbing, though not entirely surprising, that Hollywood has chosen to portray Richard Phillips, the main character in the film Captain Phillips, as a hero. Yes, the man was held captive by pirates for four days before being rescued by the US Navy. But he had put his crew in jeopardy by sailing the ship closer to the notorious Somali pirate enclave in order to maximize profits for his employer. Not to mention he insisted they complete a routine lifeboat drill instead of taking-up defensive positions as the pirates were bearing down on the ship.
In reality, it was the ship’s chief engineer, Mike Perry, who singlehanded did the most to thwart the pirates, albeit often with the aid of crewmember Matt Fisher. First he rounded-up the majority of the crew and secured them in a safe room, to protect them from the pirates. Then he took control of the ship’s steering, bypassing the controls on the bridge, and swamped the pirate’s skiff, giving the crew a tremendous advantage. To further increase that advantage, he then snuck up on deck and shut off the ship’s back-up generator, forcing the pirates to search the ship in the dark for the hidden crew. Finally, he led the capture of the pirate leader, which proved to be the final advantage needed to force the pirates to give up their attack and flee the ship.
But Hollywood has never cared much for reality. And its take on two stories of kidnapping and detention – Captain Phillips and 12 Years A Slave, both of which are based on actual events – differ greatly as to how they position the “heroics” of their main characters.
In that regard, I think Solomon Northrup, the main character in 12 Years A Slave, is far more deserving of the title “hero” than Richard Phillips. Northrup endured a far greater burden. And, upon regaining his freedom, he dedicated the rest of his life to fighting slavery and the kidnapping of free men into slavery. Rather than simply enjoying his freedom, he worked to ensure that others can enjoy theirs as well.
Incidentally, I am hoping that 12 Years A Slave will have two effects on the black youth of America. First, it will hopefully remind them of the vile nature of the word “nigger.” It’s a word that so many of today’s younger generation treat with such affection. I can’t imagine what sort of dark emotions would be tearing through Northrup if he were to magically appear today on some New York City subway car, where black kids treat the word like it was their primary pronoun. It’s a sick and hurtful word, and anyone who tells you that they can use it because of the color of their skin is no better than someone who told Northrup he couldn’t do something because of the color of his skin.
I also hope the film will illuminate the cultural and intellectual bondage that current generations unwittingly place upon themselves by treating those who seek, enjoy, and excel in their education with scorn and derision, as if that somehow makes them less black. Of course, I don’t imagine this will gain much traction given that – thanks to right-wing activists, and their C-student President – being an intellectual is now largely looked-down upon in mainstream America, regardless of the color of your skin. Yet throughout the film we see how education is the one thing that sets Northrup apart from the other slaves. And no matter how hard his oppressors might beat him, they could never take that away from him. It’s a lesson that is as true today as it was back then. As George Clinton once said, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.”