There is an undercurrent of irony in "Deadly Voyage," the first production for HBO's new film division, HBO NYC, that gives the harrowing story a never-directly-stated but constantly present subtext.
The harshly realistic film is based upon the real-life testimony of Kingsley Ofosu (convincingly acted by Omar Epps), who, with eight African companions, stowed away on a cargo ship outward bound from Ghana in 1992. Their decision, made spontaneously with little thought of consequences, did not turn out to be a wise one.
Prior to their voyage, the ship they chose, the MC Ruby, had been severely reprimanded and fined for a previous episode involving stowaways. When the vessel's ambitious First Mate Ion (portrayed in a focused, thin-lipped reading by Sean Pertwee) realizes there are more stowaways aboard, he sees his visions of a command of his own fading rapidly.
Undeterred by the alcoholic captain (rendered in appropriately dissolute fashion by Joss Ackland), Ion decides to resolve the problem with ruthless action.
What follows is dark, violent and often ugly. But it apparently is an accurate depiction of events that may not be uncommon on today's high seas. With some freighters manned by poorly paid seamen--many of them veterans of the dissembled Soviet navy--and shipping companies subject to insurance penalties for harboring stowaways, the potential for flash-point explosions of ferocious brutality is ever-present. In this case, it reached magnum force.
The unspoken irony that underlies the story, generating an impact reaching beyond Ofosu's experience, is the tragic parallel that an account of black Africans trapped on a ship in the most gruesome of conditions at the close of the 20th century bears to the slave ship voyages of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Executive producer Danny Glover, director John MacKenzie and writer Stuart Urban clearly intended "Deadly Voyage" to serve as a tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit. But it also offers distressing evidence of the persistent core of violence that lies at the heart of racism.
* "Deadly Voyage" airs at 9 tonight on HBO.