HBO is eyeing Minnesota for a television drama about recruiting jihadi terrorists.
Director Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) and Somali-born rapper K’naan are teaming up to develop a potential series called “The Recruiters,” set in Minnesota, which is home to the largest concentration of Somalis in the United States.
Seeking a Somali-American lead, the agency DeLisi Creative held a casting call two weeks ago at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis that drew more than 50 prospective actors. But they weren’t informed of the show’s premise, which is to show “the highly impenetrable world of jihadi recruitment,” according to a description in the Hollywood Reporter.
“They were not keeping it frank with us,” said Sakariya Ali, who showed up for the casting call after seeing a flier distributed in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, seeking Somali males between 17 and 25 years old. Neither the flier nor a Nov. 24 posting on the agency’s Facebook page describes the show’s premise.
“I was trying to ask the lady, but she was kind of busy,” said Ali, who read from a two-page script depicting an interaction between a teenage son and father, who was sleeping on the couch when the son wanted to invite friends over. He was invited for a second audition but decided not to attend, he said.
DeLisi Creative previously cast Somali-Americans from the Twin Cities for the 2013 Tom Hanks movie “Captain Phillips,” which drew some criticism for its portrayal of Somali pirates. But it also won acclaim for first-time actor Barkhad Abdi, who received an Oscar nomination.
The idea that “someone from our neighborhood ‘made it’ ” is a powerful lure, said Mahdi Abdi, youth program coordinator for Pillsbury United Communities.
“Young people know that it’s an opportunity to get on TV, but they don’t always see the consequences of [portraying] the wrong road or wrong things. People should be very certain about what they’re getting themselves into.”
At least 12 men in the local Somali-American community have been charged for allegedly plotting to get to Syria to fight for ISIL. Leaders fear the HBO drama could further instill negative stereotypes.
On the other hand, said Abdirizak Bihi, director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center, the series is an opportunity to portray the trauma and fear that exists within the Somali community — and the positives, too.
“What we most of the time fail is to tell the good side of the community, and also how the community is self-driven to combat radicalization of the young people,” Bihi said.
Some see a hopeful sign in the involvement by K’naan, who lived in Minneapolis for about a year after his family fled Somalia’s civil war in 1991. He gained attention with support from hip-hop tastemakers such as Mos Def and the Roots, and returned here in 2011 to sing “Stand by Me” with U2, whose frontman Bono introduced him as “a wise man who has shown great leadership on behalf of Somalia.”
Burhan Mohumed, who has lived in Minneapolis for 18 years, said K’naan’s background gives him a responsibility to capture the Somali-American experience.
“You want someone to tell the whole story,” Mohumed said. “You would hope it would be K’naan. Why doesn’t he come down to the community and spend some time with the guys, and get a good feel for what happened?”
Staff writer Chris Riemenschneider contributed to this report.
Natalie Daher • 612-673-1775