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Opening 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.
"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, Oscar consideration.
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, howeversponsored by Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), and aligned with Somalian advocacy groups across the countryare 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. What's 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 ploycomplete with special effects and jingoistic soundtrackto 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.
"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 activistsMoorehead includedhave 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 worseand 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 theyhate us.' The second, 'Those damned foreigners.' The third, 'Those damned blacks.' The fourth, 'Kill Arabs.' "
That line of reasoning, to some experts, seems slippery.
"By no stretch of the imagination can Black Hawk Downbe 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."