The Pirates of Somalia is a 2017 American drama film written and directed by Bryan Buckley. The film stars Evan Peters (famous for being the more popular Pietro Maximoff or Quicksilver), Al Pacino (famous for being Al Pacino), Melanie Griffith (famous for Working Girl and Buffalo Girls), and Barkhad Abdi (famous for being a pirate of Somalia in Captain Philips and world-renowned meme).
The movie is based on Canadian journalist and author, Jay Bahadur’s book of the same name. The movie opens in the Great White North. Jay (who finds it difficult to properly pronounce his Indian surname) nurses his journo dreams in the basement of his parents’ home, while his younger brother steals his Red Bull and his bro buddies taunt him as they embark on a trip to a local bar called Parrots. After a snow-shoveling mishap, he finds himself in a doctor’s waiting room and learns the crusty old guy in the chair across from him is Canadian journalism legend Seymour Tobin (played by Al Pacino who seems to be asking himself why such a magnificent actor like himself is playing roles in what for him is essential a B-Movie). After talking to Tobin, which gives Al Pacino, iconic lines like, “You read too much. F**k more girls instead”, Jay decides to take the plunge, borrowing just enough money from mom (Melanie Griffith) to get him to Somalia. Using rock music and vivid worst-case-scenario nightmares to amplify Jay’s anxiety en route, we arrive in Somalia.
Bahadur secures support from his translator Abdi and with his help he manages to establish contacts with the local Somali pirates and to interview them. He gets increasingly interested in studying an organization of Somali pirates. In order to fulfill this dream, Jay continues his investigation, finding himself more and more in danger, and is eventually carried along by the maelstrom of events but in a movie that tries to show the risks encountered by Bahadur, the chaos engulfing Somalia is never really explored fully.
There’s an interesting subtext in this movie. Despite its mission to shed some life on Somali culture and the precarious situation of its democracy, the movie is really all about a white guy trying to earn cultural currency in an era when what he represents is on an ever-more hurried wane. The white savior complex comes out often during the movie, despite the movie making efforts to make Jay quite likeable.
Jay is a likable character, but a little vulnerability would have gone a long way, and a more experienced actor might have found a more effective balance. Instead, Peters plays it as Seth Rogen might have, braying his lines like an uncouth American, while reminding us that he’s actually Canadian — a distinction that supplies a running gag that manages to be lamer everyone time it is referred to during the movie. More amusing is the revelation that nearly all interactions in Somalia rely on khat, a local drug Jay is expected to bring to interviews, implying that Somalia may be a stoner’s paradise and that he may be uniquely qualified to understand it. Then again, perhaps Seth Rogen could have done a decent job too as he is used to stoner comedies.
Aside from it being another how-a-white-guy-made-out-in-an-“exotic”-locale narrative, the movie doesn’t offer much though it does capture Somalia in a better light than Black Hawk Down did. The film means for us to delight in Jay’s flouting of conventions. When the little boy who’s befriended him spots the attractive wife of a local kingpin from out of Jay’s window, Jay exclaims, “You’re a good wingman, Assad,” and we are meant to be charmed. The movie does contain some good acting work, mostly from the actors portraying Somali characters; Barkhad Abdi is engaging as Abdi (not a lot of creativity there), who guides Jay after he first touches down and advises him to not take up CBS News’ offer of $1,000 to anyone who can get hostage footage from a Somali ship.
There are a lot of fascinating segments within the movie but there are many more dumb ones. Bahadur is especially foolhardy in trying to befriend a dealer of the drug khat who also happens to be a wife of the region’s biggest pirate. Sabrina Hassan Abdulle is sly and intelligent as Maryan, who surprises him with her knowledge of Hollywood movies. Haven’t we all seen The Last King of Scotland to remember what happens to white guys who sleep with the local warlord’s wife. We learn about piracy alongside Bahadur, meeting two men who separately command teams of hundreds of nothing-to-lose pirates. They see themselves as “saviors of the sea,” who are simply collecting taxes the government is too weak to impose on foreigners. One says he was happy to be a lobster diver until foreign interests came in and destroyed his livelihood. Overall, it is a fun movie to watch if you want to gain some insights into life in Somalia and it could have been a better movie, if the director had tried harder. Evan Peters isn’t a lot of fun playing a more serious role but the movie is definitely watchable once.
Watch Pirates of Somalia for a short tour into the lives of Somalians, a few cultural insights and basically if there is nothing better to view on Netflix.