Hollywood's cowboy humanitarianism in black hawk down and tears of the sun

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Abstract

In Reading Humanitarian Intervention, Anne Orford observes that "legal texts justifying interventions in the name of human rights protection offer a narrative in which the international community as heroic savior rescues those passive victims who suffer at the hands of bullies and tyrants" (2003, 34-35). At first blush, Ridley Scott's film Black Hawk Down (2001), which stages the 1993 battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, appears to craft a similar narrative, but with a significant modification. In Scott's film, it is not only the Somalis, but also the humanitarian internationals themselves-the Red Cross and the United Nations-who appear to be powerless. The opening sequences present a series of grim images of silent, starved, and dead Somalis, and the equally silent Red Cross workers who try to nourish the living. The visual displays of suffering on screen are accompanied by text crawls: "300,000 civilians die of starvation. . . . Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the most powerful of the warlords, rules the capital of Mogadishu. . . . He seizes international food shipments at the ports. . . . Hunger is his weapon." T he US military first enters the scene through the handsome figure of Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Harnett), who from his helicopter witnesses Aidid's militia confiscating bags of food marked "USA" at gunpoint from a Red Cross food distribution center. Because the area is under the UN's jurisdiction, the soldiers are prevented from engaging in conflict and saving the starving victims. The initial shots invite viewers to feel outrage at the antagonists' merciless disregard for starving people, to recognize the fragility of humanitarian internationals in need of muscular protection, and to share the heroes' frustrations with villains who appear to take advantage of international rules that prohibit violent engagement. In later scenes, US military elites will position themselves as the ultimate international frontier marshals of global law and order. T he combination of weak humanitarian internationals in Africa in need of muscular protection, helpless African victims, American military heroes, and the accompanying call for outlaw justice also appear in Antoine Fuqua's Tears of the Sun (2003). In Fuqua's film, the fictional muscular humanitarians are American Navy SEALs who protect an international missionary doctor and cooperative "Christian Ibo" victims from "Muslim Fulani" insurgents. In the DVD commentary, Fuqua states that Tears of the Sun is about "man's inhumanity to man" and "good men who are doing something about evil." The story line illustrates what Mahmood Mamdani describes as the international humanitarian order: African subjects are not "active agents in their own emancipation," but "passive beneficiaries of an external 'responsibility to protect'" (2009, 275). W hat is intriguing about both films' representations of American military intervention overseas is their evocation of the classic Hollywood western, this time with its outlaw heroes discovering a new "Wild Wild West" on African frontiers. In the classic western genre, eastern laws are viewed as insufficient tools to enforce justice when lawless or rogue villains circumvent the prescribed rules; thus, the western cowboy hero or fast-firing lawman must step in to restore order through "rough justice" (Lusted 2003, 46). In Black Hawk Down and Tears of the Sun, it is the American military that represents what Orford describes as "the hard body of the international community," which swoops in to impose order on lawless states. Through its association with humanitarian internationals, American military intervention is coded in the films as the administration of global justice (172). For Richard Slotkin, the resuscitation of the themes of the western in contemporary films responds to a nostalgia for "old assurance of American progressivism"; the dominant appeal "is not to the memory of historical experience but to the remembrance of old movies" (1992, 640). One might recall George W. Bush's call to capture Osama Bin Laden at any cost: "I want justice. And there's an old poster out West that says, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive'" (Harnden 2001). Yet it is also possible to regard the revival of western film icons as a conscious illumination of the very nostalgia for the Old West of Hollywood movies. The references to the western genre in Black Hawk Down are not necessarily indicative of a national yearning for comforting narratives of American progress in which American heroes tame and "civilize" the (global) "wilderness." Instead, Scott's film holds the conjuring of Hollywood fictions up for evaluation through the characters' glorification and imitation of mythic western outlaw heroes, and through their disillusionment as they are hit and encircled by the Somali resistance in Mogadishu. The possible embedded ideologies within the film, then, can be interpreted through a reading of how the western genre itself influences the characters' perceptions of their roles in the world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHollywood's Africa after 1994
PublisherOhio University Press
Pages68-82
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9780821420157
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 2012

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All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

Cite this

Higgins, M. (2012). Hollywood's cowboy humanitarianism in black hawk down and tears of the sun. In Hollywood's Africa after 1994 (pp. 68-82). Ohio University Press.