Now more than ever has there been an outcry for Hollywood to tell more diverse stories than the constant white perspective we’ve had since the beginning of cinema. It is sadly a slow process and diversity on screen is minimal. In this racial and ethnically aware climate it’s odd to see movies like David Gordon Green’s Our Brand is Crisis and the Tina Fey vehicle Whiskey Tango Foxtrot which are about white women being dropped into a war torn or politically unstable countries yet somehow end up dealing with their own issues. I don’t want to discount their importance as both films are inspired by true events, the latter of real journalist Kim Barker living and reporting in Afghanistan in the mid 2000 and the former drawing from of an American strategy team running a campaign for a Bolivian politician. These Western perspectives of foreign countries seem miscalculated when we as viewers are hungry to have the point of view of someone who is actually from these countries. Instead we have these films with a white female leads, interacting primarily with other white people except for some token English speaking natives. Both films have different agendas intended to reach an American audience but proof of reception and box office returns, maybe this isn’t what people want to hear anymore.
What most sets these films apart is their objective. Our Brand Is Crisis is a cat and mouse game where two rival American political strategists, Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) and Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), go head to head in a South American election but what Jane learns is that there is more at stake than her pride and a country’s stability hangs in the balance. She entered into the campaign seeking that thrill of a win but over the course of the election, she meets with the average Bolivians and realizes the destruction she is causing by getting her candidate in office. It’s a very soft message of neocolonialism and how Western powers negatively affect a developing country under the guise of democracy. Whiskey Tango shies away from getting too political which is surprising for a film set amidst the war in Afghanistan. Aside from making the broad statements of “the Taliban is bad” and “maybe we shouldn’t have invaded” the movie decides to delve into the gender politics in the Middle East contrasted with American ideals. While reporting in Kabul, Kim (Tina Fey) has to hold her own working in an area where, as the film portrays, women have little voice and are oppressed while adversely she’s living in essentially a frat house for reporters where everyone is having sex and her attractiveness is a commodity. A great tag line could be “that sucks for women” which was the most marketed joke of the film because overall that’s what it’s somewhat positing; it sucks being a woman but at least in America you can take charge of your own life and not have to be complacent even if that means leaving Martin Freeman.
For films set abroad, they have few major characters of color. Each film follows the same blueprint. First a rich politician, Crisis has presidential candidate Castillo (Joaquin de Almeida) that has little agency because he is a pawn being played by Jane’s team and Whiskey has high ranking official, Ali Massed Sadiq (Alfred Molina, a non-Middle Eastern actor) who tries to seduce Kim. Second is the homegrown guide who shows our white protagonist what life in their country is really like. Eduardo (Reynaldo Pacheco) who Jane will quickly Americanize to “Eddie” is an optimistic volunteer that opens Jane’s eyes to the lower class of Bolivia. His Afghan counterpart is Fahim (Christopher Abbott, straight up white dude) assigned as Kim’s “fixer” to help translate and navigate the treacherous terrain. More often than not Kim pulls Fahim into more danger than he bargained for when she disregards local customs in hopes of getting a good story. Little is made of this as it’s addressed as a “Kim” problem rather than a white privilege problem. The films allows only a narrow view into a person of color’s perspective, either a wealthy man who is more Westernized than he can admit to the public or a young man working for the white protagonist there only to tell them they’re wrong once it’s gone too far.
If you couldn’t tell from my colorful descriptions, Whiskey is slightly out of touch when it comes to racial representation considering its casting and lack of including many Afghans for a movie in Afghanistan. As I said the film has more of a feminist agenda but even that feels troublesome. Kim and the military convoy she’s been shadowing keep returning to a remote village where a well is being bombed. On repeat visit, Kim is inconspicuously motioned away by a woman in burqa. Once secluded in a room with other veiled women, they all reveal themselves and we find out later that they wanted Kim to relay the message that they were the ones destroying the well so they could get away from the men when fetching water. The movie seems to think this is an achievement that in this repressive society, the women at least have a strong bond with each other that can also reach across cultures but considering this scene is shot with the women’s backs to us and we only see Kim’s reaction, is that these women are not only voiceless but faceless to us as viewers and need a white surrogate to solve their problem. The film is filled with broad strokes of Afghan culture and even though Kim remains there for many years, she picks up the language but never gets more comfortable than her compound’s safety. Crisis at least has the good intentions of connecting with the local population and understanding the concerns they have for the future of their country. Jane follows Eduardo home one day after work and meets with his brothers who after she takes out for a wild night of heated political discussion and shots. While not main characters, Crisis dedicates scenes to at least interact with the common man whether it’s for parties or protests.
There are ways to broaden these films and make them less focused on white protagonists that are overlooked. Besides casting actual Afghan actors, you could expand on the “special friend” relationship between Kim and Sadiq which never is fully fleshed out. You could better incorporate one of the other fixers, Jaweed (Fahim Anwar), who gets killed and no one seems to care about because his only character trait was liking donkey porn. For Crisis, the film would be exponentially more original if it was from Eduardo’s perspective. He’s the more engaging character with a believable arc. At the beginning of the campaign he worships Castillo as his now deceased father had been a loyal supporter. As Castillo moves into that father figure/mentor role, after the election all the campaign promises of keeping away from foreign influence like the IMF prove to be false. Eduardo is heartbroken and decides to follow his fellow countrymen in a call for revolution. It’s a far more important change than Jane realizing her campaigns are hurting people even though that’s something she seems to have known all along.
Both of these films didn’t perform well financially even though they were heavily marketed and contained stars with great track records. You can blame that maybe in general these aren’t the strongest films in terms of story or even locking down a genre, but the fact that these films tempt us with the opportunity of diversity but then immediately dash those dreams by delegating minorities to plot point bystanders only there to serve a white person. I’d like for the next film about a political election in a foreign country be told by someone who actually lives there or a war film about the people directly effected by said conflict. If I need another story of a white lady, I’ll go and live it myself.