Monday, March 3, 2014

A pirate's wages

 Brian To / WENN
Left: Worth an estimated $350 million. Right: Broke.
Made the most of this past Sunday by catching not one but two Oscar contenders in the runup to the evening's telecast: American Hustle at the local second-run theater, then Captain Phillips on DVD.

I was more than a little disappointed that American Hustle didn't win anything – I don't care how strong the competition was, that movie was amazing – but it's Captain Phillips that I want to discuss, because it has such a curious behind-the-scenes story.

The movie depicts real-life events,* the 2009 capture by Somali pirates and eventual rescue of the title character, Capt. Richard Phillips, who was commanding the Maersk Alabama container ship. Many Americans remember the dramatic resolution of the crisis, when Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three of the four pirates through the tiny windows of the lifeboat the Somalis had commandeered. A fourth hijacker, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, was captured and is serving a long sentence in U.S. prison.

Muse is played in the film by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi, who was so good in the role that he received (and deserved, in my opinion) an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. According to an article in the New Yorker (paywalled), he was driving a limousine for his brother's company in Minneapolis when he answered a casting call seeking Somali nationals for the movie.

How much did Abdi earn for going toe-to-toe with one of the top-grossing actors in the world and giving as good as he got? $65,000.

The New Yorker:
After filming, he went back to work for his brother, selling mobile phones at his shop in a Somali-run mall in Cedar-Riverside ...  On the day of the premiere, he quit.
When Abdi is in Los Angeles to promote the film, he subsists on a per diem, good at the Beverly Hilton, where the studio likes to put him up. The town car is available only for official publicity events. His clothes are loaners. 

Given that Captain Phillips shows a fair bit of sympathy for its villains,** I find it curious that no one at the studio has thought of showing similar sympathy to Abdi and revisiting his financial deal. It would seem to be worth doing, even if only from a PR standpoint.

I couldn't find any firm figures on Hanks' fee for the movie, but it had to be a few million dollars. The movie as a whole cost $55 million. Abdi's $65,000 isn't even a rounding error.  

So you make a movie about a clash between the wealthy, powerful, technologically advanced (and white) First World and the desperately poor, hardscrabble (and black) Third World, and your production's pay scale basically mirrors the incredibly unjust situation you're depicting? It doesn't seem right. 

True, Hanks' value stems from his whole career, not one performance, and certainly it's his name on the marquee that sells tickets, not Abdi's. Or is it? It was at first, but once the movie opened, I have to think at least a few people recommended it to friends on the strength of this unknown Somalian's electric performance.

I know creative accounting is more Hollywood's thing than common decency is, but it would be nice if they made an exception this time around. 


*As Hollywood movies go, it takes relatively few liberties with its source material, the real Capt. Phillips' memoir, but whether the memoir can be trusted fully is another matter.  

**Early on, it depicts the grinding poverty of their home village and the menace of the local warlords, and toward the end, Phillips and Muse discuss, non-judgmentally, the desperation that drove the latter's actions. 

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