Feb 5, 2006

Tuaregs, Truth, and Theater

Left: Image of "Sahara" packaging courtesy of Kinomaniak.pl

(Toledo, OH) We rented a film called "Sahara" last night, which is an action film based on a novel by Clive Cussler starring real-life lovers Matthew McConaughey and Penélope Cruz. It's pretty forgettable, and generally harmless escapism, but an important part of the film is completely inaccurate.

McConaughey's on-screen charm prevents the film from devolving into the realm of the unwatchable, but this post is not about reviewing a film.

Rather the producers, for an unexplained reason, decided to cast black Africans in the roles of the Tuareg, a group of people who inhabit the Sahara Desert.

The problem is that the Tuareg are ethnically very close to the North African Berber peoples, and have lighter-colored skin.

This might seem to be a minor point, except that it raises questions about this directorial and casting decision. Was director Breck Eisner just another ignorant American who assumed that everyone in Africa is black, or did he consciously choose to misrepresent the ethnicity of the Tuareg?

Did Eisner, who is the son of mogul Michael Eisner, assume that audiences would be more sympathetic to black victims than those who resembled Arabs in this post-9/11 world?

In addition, despite its poverty, Mali is a fairly stable country. The film depicts the nation as a war-torn land run by a ruthless dictator. The nation, in fact, has had a democratically-elected government for almost two decades.

Yes, it is just an action-comedy, and yes, I only spent a buck at the video store to watch the film. Shouldn't we, however, expect some semblance of reality from directors of Hollywood films?

After all, for many people a film like "Sahara" is the closest thing they will get to geography and history lessons.


Lisa Renee said...

As a fan of the Dirk Pitt series, given the lack of attention to detail that this movie demonstrated versus the book? Doesn't surprise me. The actors selected as characters was not anything close to the way they are written.

I was very very disappointed with this movie and I agree with you that not only was there a problem with the Tuaregs but many other details.

Stephanie said...

Were the Turaegs depicted appropriately in the book? How about Mali?

I've never read any Dirk Pitt books, so I've no idea.

But I enjoyed the movie, but I wasn't looking for any intellectual stimulation either. Escapist fantasy is about right.

historymike said...

I have not read any Clive Cussler, Lisa. His books are on the list, though.

Yes, there were some mindless fun moments, like the boat chase scene on the Niger River, Stephanie. McConaughey is also one of my favorite actors (he was great in "Contact").

On the whole, though, a disappointment.

Name withheld to protect the guilty said...

"...for many people a film like "Sahara" is the closest thing they will get to geography and history lessons."

That truth is far sadder than any misrepresentation.

(And I haven't seen the movie, but have read the book, and Lisa's right--the Salma Hayek character is supposed to be a blond Scandinavian, with flawless English no less, among other discrepancies.)

Name withheld to protect the guilty said...

I'm sorry, Penelope Cruz. Wrong dark-haired beauty.

Anonymous said...

Mike, I have not seen the film Sahara. But as someone who spent most of his years as an undergraduate studying African history, I am compelled to suggest this misrepresentation is a problem, especially in an age when Hollywood has garnered a degree of legitimacy among movie-goers (I cite recent biopics and political thrillers as evidence.) If Americans saw a foreign film in which New Englanders were portrayed with Texan accents, it would be laughed out of theaters--I hope we, as a people, are prepared to do the same when our own film-makers ignore basic facts about other cultures.

Stephanie said...

Ah, "Contact," now that was one of his better films. Though, that film is a rare example of a movie that IMPROVED on a book by not following it closely.

My favorite scene in "Sahara" is probably when they find the downed plane and the side-kick (too tired to remember his actual name) says something to the effect of "I don't think we can fix it."

Though, for me, as far as geography and history goes, without you saying it I probably wouldn't have even credited the Tuaregs as even being a real people. After having read this post, I came across the name in another book, so I had a better frame of reference for them. Thank you for that.

Stephanie said...

"...especially in an age when Hollywood has garnered a degree of legitimacy among movie-goers..."

That seems to me to be laziness on the part of the movie-goers. I've yet to see a movie that the participants don't admit to manipulating the truth for the sake of the screen, even when they claim to be trying to give an accurate representation of the history involved (Amistad comes to mind, to keep on the McConaughey track). To accept a film as a history lesson seems a pretty bad bet to make.

Then again, I have a natural distrust for anything as liberal as Hollywood.

Dariush said...

Never seen the movie but this is far from a surprise.

Anyone who's seen "Black Hawk Dawn", for example, and has ever seen a Somali (a non-Bantu Somali to be exact), knows that none of the actors portraying Somalis in that movie were actually Somalis.

Iman (model and wife of David Bowie) is a Somali. Somalis typically have sharp, Semitic features and somewhat lighter skin than their neighbours to the south and west -- albeit not as light Ethiopians or Eritreans on average.

The "Somalis" in that movie were all Sub-Saharan Africans representing every nationality from Nigerian to Central African to Congan to Angolan to you name it. The movie was shot in Morocco and the "Somalis" were all immigrants from other parts of Africa (apparently Morocco has a large population of sub-Saharan immigrants).

My guess is the producers simply decided that Americans couldn't tell the difference (one's as good as another) and went with what they had.

The sad thing is, they're right.

historymike said...

Stephanie: Hollywood's liberal tendencies don't bother me as much as their "stupidity" tendencies.

Dariush: I have never seen Black Hawk down, but your comments do not surprise me. I almost hate to watch mainstream American films that deal with history or politics any more; I'll either rail about the imbecillic level to which they are written, or get irritated about the historical inaccuracies.

They should hire people like us to smack them in the heads whenever they stray from reality.

Calico Jack said...


I don't know the difference in populations from Togo, Mali, Sub-Saharan Africa or anywhere else on the dark continent, but I know that Hollywood produces fiction and any resemblance to fact is purely coincidental. The ability to tell the difference is my responsibility, not the producer of the film.

One example that still spins me up is Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” which was accepted by people as fact, listed as a documentary and is actually fiction. We might as well give credibility to “Interview With A Vampire” while we’re at it.

I enjoyed Sahara for what it was: Escapism. When I want reality, I’ll play the stock market.

Stephanie said...


"Hollywood's liberal tendencies don't bother me as much as their "stupidity" tendencies."

LOL! Agreed!