Protesting Black Hawk Down
It's one thing to have Somali groups protesting Black Hawk Down for what they say is an inaccurate and racist portrayal of Somalis. It's quite another to have one of the actors in the Oscar-nominated movie, an account of the 1993 US military intervention in Somalia that left eighteen American soldiers dead, openly denounce the movie for the same reason.
But that's exactly what Brendan Sexton III did in front of a group of nearly 200 students at Columbia University on February 11. Sexton, who has appeared in such movies as Boys Don't Cry and Welcome to the Dollhouse, said the film oversimplifies and inaccurately portrays Somalis as "savages without any reason to oppose the US military presence in Somalia." He said he originally agreed to take the part because in the script his character openly denounces the military action. But, he said, "After September 11, they edited out the speech my character, Alphabet, made."
Sony officials said they were unaware of Sexton's comments and that they had no comment.
Black Hawk Down arrived on the film scene just as Americans are developing a renewed awareness of Somalia. The Bush Administration has named Somalia as a likely new hideout for Al Qaeda fighters, and the US military has begun naval patrols off Somalia's coast to prevent terrorists from receiving weapons.
The day before the film's January 18 premiere, Somali leaders in Minneapolis, Minnesota (a state with a Somali population of at least 25,000, according to an estimate by a Somali advocacy group), called for a boycott of the movie, saying it could create a backlash against refugees who have fled to the United States. "We don't know what Americans will think of us Somalis after they watch this movie," Omar Jamal, of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, told the Associated Press. The group Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) has led protests in cities including New York, Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles.
Black Hawk Down recounts what happened when a group of elite US soldiers was sent into Mogadishu in October 1993 as part of a UN peacekeeping operation. Supporters of the film, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, say that director Ridley Scott accurately portrayed a situation in which the Somali people didn't want an American presence there and that Americans were butchered for their efforts. But protesters say that Scott omitted a lot, including the fact that from 1982 to 1990 the United States viewed Somalia as a partner in defense, training officers of the country's National Armed Forces in US military schools and providing them with weapons. "We did the same thing in Somalia as we did in Afghanistan," Sexton said. "Somalia was a piece in the game of cold war chess." Protesters also say that Scott left out the fact that the United States backed a Somali regime that had looted the national treasury and that President George H. W. Bush used famine as a mask to prod the UN to go along with the United States intervention to protect its interests.
Sony Pictures and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, known for his violent action films, rushed the release of Black Hawk Down by ten weeks to take advantage of patriotic fever and the war on terrorism. "There is a lot of handshaking between Hollywood and the government," Sexton said. Black Hawk Down was No. 1 at the box office for three weeks and has grossed nearly $96 million to date.
Sexton said that he will probably visit a few more colleges before lawyers enforce the gag provision in his Black Hawk Down contract, which stipulates financial sanctions for saying anything negative about the movie. But, he added, "they've already made $90 million, so I don't think me speaking out at a few more places will really have much of an effect on their business."
Adrian Brune is a freelance writer and masters candidate at Columbia Journalism School.