of Answer picketed the United Artists theater at Union
(photo: Cary Conover)
February 6 - 12, 2002
Protest No. 1 Movie
'Black Hawk' Damned
night for Black Hawk Down in Mogadishu, Somalia, was
a bootleg screening at Dualeh Cinema, an open-air, makeshift
movie house, two weeks ago. Hundreds of men sat on patches
of sand, some chewing khat, some smoking, watching blurry
images projected onto a wall.
more, they maintain it's war propaganda. Mogadishu, very likely,
could be the next target on the president's anti-terrorism
tour, the activists reason; Black Hawk Down, therefore,
is a ploy—complete with special effects and jingoistic soundtrack—to
drug the public into supporting a reinvasion of oil-rich Somalia.
A conspiracy! A dangerous game of footsie between the Pentagon
and Hollywood, created only to whet the country's appetite
for more war.
"In this fighting I lost nine of my best friends,"
one told the Associated Press.
When a Somalian character was killed in the
battle scenes, there was no reaction from the crowd. When
an American fell, there was applause.
"It was that very helicopter," said another
man, popping up from his seat. "It hovered on top of us, and
shot us, one by one. I got wounded, but the others died."
In New York, seventeen protesters were marching
in circles last Thursday, pumping their picket signs outside
the United Artists theater at Union Square. It was raining,
windy, and cold. "Hollywood, we say no; Black Hawk Down
has got to go!" the group chanted, as confused moviegoers
filed into the multiplex cinema through blue crowd-control
barricades and past 43 police officers, some in riot gear,
to see the nation's most popular film.
"Stop the racist movie!" the group went on,
"Stop the racist war!"
Black Hawk Down is still No. 1 at the
box office after three weeks, grossing $75.5 million so far.
The $90 million blockbuster is being hailed as a tribute to
the heroism of our soldiers, an epic view from the front lines
inside Somalia, and the most accurate, authentic depiction
of modern warfare, ever. Over 100 minutes of raw combat.
Its release date was rushed ahead by 10 weeks. Reasons cited:
war on terrorism, patriotic fervor, and according to Sony,
For the Washington premiere, the vice president
surfaced from his hole, along with Donald Rumsfeld, Oliver
North, and assorted military brass.
Army general John M. Keane said, "[Jerry Bruckheimer,
producer] came into my office and said, 'General, I'm going
to make a movie that you and your army will be proud of.'
He did that, so we thank him." Rumsfeld called it "powerful."
The Pentagon has Black Hawk fever. The
book on which the film is based, written by Philadelphia reporter
Mark Bowden, is now required reading for all troops. Private
screenings are also being held at military bases.
The protesters, however—sponsored by Act Now
to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), and aligned with Somalian
advocacy groups across the country—are calling for boycotts.
They say the film is racist. Somalians, in army-speak, are
called "skinnies." According to New York Times critic
Elvis Mitchell, the film "converts the Somalis into a pack
of snarling dark-skinned beasts." And on the screen, white
troops gun them down, shooting everything that moves, without
reason or regard for women and children.
Other demonstrations have been planned in
Boston; Houston; Los Angeles; Minneapolis-St. Paul; and
"The U.S. has long sorted out then demonized
people of color and their leaders in preparation for a new
war," says Monica Moorehead, a national coordinator for
ANSWER. "In the minds of its citizens," she says, "the U.S.
looks to justify, somehow, that the poorest countries and
people in the world are 'threats' to national security.
That's why we're exposing Black Hawk Down. I'm not
gonna pay $10 and promote the new phase of Bush's war."
The propaganda talk may sound believable,
if you haven't seen the film, and many activists—Moorehead
included—have not. What the film does show is the ultimate
FUBAR. The viewer is more apt to leave the theater with
a convincing impression that war is bad, war never works,
and U.S. troops should never be in Somalia again.
The film aims to show bravery, for better
or worse—and only that, for better or worse. Black Hawk
Down doesn't answer questions, and doesn't ask them.
Why Somalia in the first place? According to the book's
author, "Black Hawk Down is a story about a group
of young men who, more then anything else, want desperately
to experience battle."
"And they get their wish," says Mark Bowden.
"People are struggling to find a political message in this
film. It doesn't have one."
The activists disagree. Honor and bravery
are just tactics the filmmakers use, in cahoots with the
Pentagon, to create an emotional subtext for viewers, thus
gingerly sidestepping the political agenda at hand. Larry
Chin, an activist-writer, argues that the audience only
sees brave, innocent American boys getting shot and killed
for no reason by "crazy black Islamists." The first subtext
is, he says, " 'America is good, and it's impossible to
understand why they hate us.' The second, 'Those
damned foreigners.' The third, 'Those damned blacks.' The
fourth, 'Kill Arabs.' "
That line of reasoning, to some experts,
"By no stretch of the imagination can Black
Hawk Down be an argument to get back into Somalia,"
says Dr. Lawrence Suid, military film historian and author
of the war film study, Guts and Glory. "If anything,
it's the exact opposite! BHD is a very accurate,
honest movie that shows, very clearly, that the Somali people
didn't want us there; it was out of our control; and for
our efforts, we were slaughtered."
The smoky back room shared by the Pentagon
and Hollywood is also myth, Suid explains. The relationship
is one of "mutual exploitation." The army provides services
to Hollywood moviemakers, and in turn, film liaisons attempt
to keep the military's image positive. They proof scripts
and make sure directors and producers hold the military
in high regard.
Outside the industry, some call that censorship.
To some Hollywood producers and directors, however, befriending
the Pentagon is a cost-effective way to ensure authenticity.
For the four-month Black Hawk Down shoot in Morocco,
producers had access to 139 troops, and real Black Hawk
and Little Bird helicopters. Actors were also able to learn
weapons handling at military bases.
"The film is accurate, not racist," says
Bowden, and the only reason some have taken offense to the
film is that they don't look past the surface imagery. "People
respond to images more than words. They convey an impression,
and some people can take it wrongly."
The protesters, he claims, are only using
Black Hawk Down to draw attention to their own causes.
"How many people were paying attention to
the protests of Somalis three months ago?" he says. "This
is probably the best thing that ever happened to them."