Pirates of the Caribbean II and the Tradition of Racial Oppression

I was very excited to see Pirates of the Caribbean II: The Dead Man’s Chest Friday night; I loved the first film and used to work at the Magic Kingdom theme park where I frequented the Florida’s abbreviated version of the ride. Beyond watching the trailers, I’d remained spoiler free and didn’t know what to expect from Pirates. While queueing at a small town American theater, I studied the poster for the film and saw three brown-skilled men with jeering and perplexed looks on their faces in the lower left-hand corner. Uh-oh, I thought. What am I getting into?

Here ye be warned, this post contains some mild spoilers for Pirates of the Caribbean II.

As much as I enjoyed the movie’s plot and action (I haven’t been so scared by a movie in ages), and Elizabeth’s agency in a male dominated world, the race portrayal in the movie left me very unsettled. I decided to mull it over a few days, and see what others were saying on the blogoshere. I found this post by LiveJournal user Sabonasi on the debunkingwhite LJ group. On the character of Tia Dalma, one of the few people of color whose role is more than marginal, Sabonasi writes:

Tia Dalma is definitely in “Magical Negro” territory. She’s overly willing to help the white characters, often for a smaller price than one might expect and even after Jack steals from her. She is exploited by the white characters, and the film offers no criticism for this. Rather, it’s intended to be funny. White people ripping off a black woman who is helping them? Totally hilarious! [/sarcasm]

Furthermore, there was the treatment of Dalma’s sexuality. Hey, I’m all for sexuality. If it was just Dalma lusting after Will and Jack, I’d call her an honorary fan and be done with it. My problem is that her sexuality was also treated as a joke. The film made it perfectly clear that there was no way that Jack nor Will would actually be romantically interested in her. A Black woman thinking she is sexually/romantically desirable? Hahahaha! [/more sarcasm]

Sabonasi goes on to discuss the Kalinago people, the “savage cannibals” who make Jack their god and intend to eat him:

I do not speak Kalhíphona. I do not know if what was being spoken in the film was Kalhíphona or not. But the fact that the Kalinago people were not speaking English? Was also meant to be humorous. A bit of an aside: Jack appears to have mastered the language almost instantaneously, which implicitely states the language isn’t that complex. Or Jack is just that much of a Mighty Whitey. Maybe both.

[...]

The Kalinago people appear in the story and disappear in the story with little consequence. They serve no purpose but to provide a source of racist humor and menance the heroes. The idea that they want to free a god from his human form is never fully explored, and I’m surprised they got even that much motivation.

I realize now that the portrayal of the Kalinago in Pirates of the Caribbean is continuing the images of the “savage cannibals” used to subjugate indigenous peoples since the days of Columbus.

At first, I didn’t realize that the indigenous people in the film were based on a real group, Kalinago. I searched for “Kalinago” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” on Google, and found that Caribbean Indigenous Peoples have been calling for a boycott of the film for a few weeks now:

On behalf of the Taíno People and Nation represented
by the United Confederation of Taíno People (UCTP), we
are urging all our relations around the world to
stand in solidarity with a peaceful protest against
Walt Disney Pictures and their upcoming release of
“The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” for
its erroneous depiction of Caribbean Indigenous
Peoples as savage cannibals.

>From the time Christopher Columbus arrived on our
shores, it is well known that these “cannibal” images
were used as propaganda to enslave and murder Natives
Peoples throughout the hemisphere, and beyond.

Therefore, We, the Taino People have united our voices
with our Kalinago, Carib, and Garinagu relatives to
bring attention to this injustice, racist portrayal of
Indigenous Peoples.

The Wikipedia article on Carib peoples (as of 7/9/06) also identifies an imperialist motive for labeling peoples as cannibals:

Instances of cannibalism were noted as a feature of religious war rituals, and in fact, the English word cannibal comes from the Spanish caníbal, itself taken from the Carib karibna (‘person’) as recorded by Columbus. Claims of cannibalism, however, must be seen in light of the fact that in 1503, Queen Isabella ruled that only cannibals could be legally taken as slaves, which gave Europeans an incentive to identify various Amerindian groups as cannibals.

But colonization was in the past, right? Why does that hurt people now? From the CAC Review on boycotting Pirates:

Let us keep in mind that such depictions were used to enslave and murder the ancestors of today’s Caribs, there was never anything innocent or “fun” about these portrayals. In addition, generations of Carib descended school children in the Caribbean have been taught that their ancestors were savage cannibals. Shame over ancestry was inculcated as a matter of routine. In my own field research experience, I have encountered individuals in their forties and fifties who told me very directly that the main reason they did not wish to self-identify as Caribs is that people in the wider world see Caribs as cannibals, as inhuman man eaters, and they found the stigma unbearable. Disney is playing its part in centuries of ethnocide.

As a former Disney employee, there are plenty of good reasons to boycott the company in addition to its racism, and I applaud those who can remove themselves entirely from financially supporting the corporation. I don’t know that I will entirely remove myself, Disney is ubiquitous and there are things I enjoy about their creations at the same time I am vocally critical. I did enjoy Pirates despite its racism, and that puts me as unease with myself. Another LiveJournal user, oyceter, articulates well why this causes discomfort in the post Race and Pirates:

Part of me doesn’t even want to keep talking about this because it’s so uncomfortable, because it causes such defensiveness in other people, because I am tired of being told that I am wrong for seeing these things. And that’s the very reason I am making myself post this, making myself confront the nidginess and the squirminess, the problems that I have in just acknowledging that something that I am enjoying is racist.

I almost stopped talking about it because I met resistance to discussing race in this movie with my fellow white friends and family. It’s easy for us to say “it’s just a movie” or “it’s just being historically accurate” when we’re the peoples represented as the heroes. But we’re not wrong for noticing, and we should talk about it. Maybe our less-than-agreeable peers with look more critically at race portrayal next time they see a film. And now that I’ve read up a little bit of Caribbean history, and heard some from the people of color “represented” in this movie, I’m a little bit more prepared to speak up.

Cross-posted on Ally Work.

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This entry was posted in Companies Behaving Badly, Disney, Film and televison, Popular Culture, Racism. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Pirates of the Caribbean II and the Tradition of Racial Oppression

  1. Mickle says:

    Yes, the whole part with the cannibals was really annoying – to put it mildly. It wasn’t even all that funny, either. Ok, – the cage part was – but they didn’t need to be cannibals – or any other type of indigenous stereotype – for that joke.

    I like the existence of a Tia Dalma character – but not the fact that the black, female captain in the first movie was supplanted by a Magical Negro. There is speculation that Tia Dalma plays a larger role in the trilogy’s events than just as the cryptic wise-woman. Unfortunately, it probably won’t save her from being a streotype.

    (sigh) And it was such a damn good movie except for all that. In large part because Elizabeth most definitely kicked ass – and she wasn’t even in huge chunks of the movie.

    I hate it when smart writers are lazy – it’s even worse when their laziness creates something that is hurtful.

  2. Pingback: Feminist SF - The Blog! » Blog Archive » Pirates of the Caribbean II: Link Round-Up

  3. Laura says:

    While I whole-heartedly agree with essentially all of this, I’d like to clarify two (rather nitpicky) things (from Sabonasi’s original post) :

    1. Re: Tia Dalma’s sexuality – part of the joke here is that Jack IS (or at least has been in the past) interested in her romantically/sexually. When she says something about Will “knowing” her, Jack responds jealously, “I thought I knew you”. So she is sexually desirable (at least to Jack), and she knows it.

    The exploitation/stereotype elements are obviously still there, though (her being viewed sexually can be seen as contributing to that, even), and I can only hope that’s remedied somewhat in the next film.

    2. Jack didn’t really just ‘instantaneously’ pick up the language of the ‘Kalinago’ people – he’s had experience with them in the past (though that information is easy to miss in the movie), so he’s had some time to learn it. That’s a pretty insignificant point when you consider the big picture, but it’s at least one less thing they’ve done wrong. They’re still clearly mocking indigenous languages, though.

    I had no idea the Kalinago were a real group. That’s horrible and disgusting. It would be horrible and offensive if it were a made-up group, but to base them on actual people? You just don’t do that. The whole “savage cannibals” thing has bothered me since the first previews, but this just makes it so much worse.

    Also, as much as Elizabeth totally rocked for most of this movie, at one point she sums up her feelings on the entire situation by saying “I just thought I’d be married by now”. I realize that the line’s in there to give Jack a chance to hit on her, and to develop the Jack/Elizabeth plotline, but… it kinda pissed me off.

  4. Laura says:

    I couldn’t remember the name that the cannibal tribe was called in the movie, so I assumed after reading this that they were actually called the Kalinago, but they’re not. They’re a fictitious tribe called the Pelegosto. Still obviously based on indigenous Caribbean peoples, but they’re not actually referencing a real group.

    Again, still not good, but not as bad.

  5. LDF says:

    I didn’t care for Pirates II either, and that was before even considered the racial aspects mentioned in your analysis. It seemed to me that they stripped out the humorous banter from the first movie and gave the actors parts that required no acting. Everything was a shallow charicature based on genre stereotypes, and with little entertainment value. If you are interested, I also wrote a review of the movie at:
    http://lestdarknessfall.blogspot.com/2006/07/pirates-2-worse-than-walking-plank.html

  6. Jim Gleeson says:

    This movie made me very uncomfortable as well. The mere fact of my loving the movie increases the sensitivity of my discomfort. I am loath to discuss it with other people since seeing the fallout you all have had over it. I did discuss it with the family dog however and it seemed to whine listlessly into the night as I patted his head.

    The portrayal of the white men in this movie made me feel so slighted. I speak of course of Jack Sparrow as the rum swilling pirate. He was drunk all the way through the picture and it completely traumatized me. How could they show that onscreen. Not all white people are drunks. White drunks who will betray their brother to get what they want.

    Thank goodness Orlando bloom played Will Turner. Actually, I felt that way initially, but then it all turned. Because he went out as us stereotypical males do, and sought out Jack to free the woman he loved from jail. This clearly showed that he thought she could not fend for herself, casting her in a subservient role. Not all of us men are like this. Some of us would prefer an independent woman who can take care of herself and us as well. We call ourselves “Federlines.”

  7. This type of stereotyping is called character assassination. Mr. Iger, CEO of the Walt Desney Company you owe the indigenous people of the Caribbean; Kalinago, Garifuna, Taino, Arawaks and Caribs an apology. Why don’t Disney make some reparations and pays for the making of a documentary that depicts the true history of these people. http://www.garifunaheritagefoundtion.org

  8. debbie lunn says:

    I can sympathise with a lot of the comments vis racial stereotyping but Tia was the most beautiful, mesmerising female, even character, of the whole movie. So let’s not underestimate her. Yes, I thought it was a bit stupid to have ALL the rest of the badies with dark, extra dark skin and scarey faces. And there’s a lot of fair comment about this. ( I’m a white caucasian but I noticed big time!) It would have been good to have had a strong “dark” character on the “goodie” side. But Tia was absolutely the best and it would have been brilliant to have had a few more like her.

    AShe was one of the best bits of the movie for me. Along with the obvious characters. I hope she’s a big part of three and that there are more interesting non-scarey, non-white characters

  9. Barbara Minter says:

    I loved the Pirates II. I love the characters, especially Jack and Tia. If I am not mistaken, both are possibly cast as Jamaicans? They are certainly the heroes. I could swear I’ve seen or known them somehow before. Am I out of my tree or are these characters somehow cast in the Rastafarai tradition? I guess it would make sense, Port Royal was in Jamaica and was used as a base for the British royalty before it fell into the ocean during an earthquake. I certainly don’t like the inside of the casket shooting of the bird and I think this action doesn’t go well with the rest of the movie as these people are just trying to co-exist as they try to avoid a fuss or physical fight. The use of the symbol of the East Indian trading company is certainly interesting and I know that symbols are ever so important in the “schisms” of things. With the way we are going on our planet I think Jack and Tia may have the answer-look inside ourselves for solutions. I hope that the “you and I are really alike” or the “I and you” really mean the “I and I” in a universal plea to all mankind that we are all one family and should try to get along.

  10. Freaky Lara says:

    I’m Latino, my gf is Black, and my daughter is White. We watched Pirates 2 and none of us found it offensive. I do, however see the point of the Taino council. From that perspective, would you then encourage a boycot on Sascha Baror Cohen as well for his stereotyping of Khazic people? I have to disagree with you that Johnny Depp would engage in celebrating White theft in a bigoted sense. He has put his career on the line to criticize America’s bigoted foreign policy so I really doubt that his heart contains White supremacy in it. Please reply to me at FreakmasterL@yahoo.com

  11. Freaky Lara: I’m going to toss in my two cents here, even though it isn’t my post and I can’t speak for Ariel.

    I’m not sure how you can say that Pirates was not offensive, yet still see the point of the Taino council. The council directly criticizes the film for falsely portraying their people as “savage cannibals.” I think that’s plenty reason to consider the movie offensive.

    I actually haven’t seen Borat, so I can’t say. Some people have suggested that the movie is a smart satire of anti-Semitism, so if that were the case, I would be okay with it. Otherwise, it’s just another cheap use of racism/ethnocentrism for the sake of “humor.”

    I have to disagree with you that Johnny Depp would engage in celebrating White theft in a bigoted sense. He has put his career on the line to criticize America’s bigoted foreign policy so I really doubt that his heart contains White supremacy in it.

    Just because a person commits some anti-racist actions doesn’t mean that s/he is completely free of racism. Getting rid of one’s ingrained racism is a long (perhaps lifelong) process. Johnny Depp doesn’t get a free pass for accusations of racism just because he does some (very good) work in a different arena.

  12. Jo says:

    I only just rented Pirates II last weekend, so I’m glad I didn’t find this before today. ^^

    Also, as much as Elizabeth totally rocked for most of this movie, at one point she sums up her feelings on the entire situation by saying “I just thought I’d be married by now”. I realize that the line’s in there to give Jack a chance to hit on her, and to develop the Jack/Elizabeth plotline, but… it kinda pissed me off.

    Yes, that made my skin crawl. Big time. It’s all this blog’s fault. ;)

  13. Leigh says:

    *WARNING contains spoilers for II”
    My view on Elizabeth’s marriage comment: If taken out of context of the movie plot and the time frame in which it is set could be considered offensive.

    And yet, in the 1700’s, a woman’s only choice was to marry, and marry well. Elizabeth (the Govenor’s Daughter!) in choosing to marry for love – and to a blacksmith’s apprentice and son of a pirate no less – instead of social standing shows a great deal of backbone.

    Don’t forget, when she threatned Lord Cutler Beckett, she accused him of robbing her of her wedding NIGHT, not wedding DAY. She’s not a modern day bridezilla whining about her place settings, but a woman ready to be with the one she loved. The wedding was just the means to an end.

    And I think too much has been read into that phrase… anyone who had their wedding interrupted by soldiers and arrested with a death sentence, then escaped by dressing as a
    boy and ending up on a pirate ship hunted by a giant sea monster should be forgiven for wishing momentarily that things had gone according to the original, simple plan. haha. :)

    On another note, I am curious what the original posters who objected to Tia Dalma think about her true identy that is revealed in III? I’m not sure what to think…

  14. Richard says:

    Well Disney does it again. Their new movie Prince of Persia has cast a white British actress, Gemma Arterton, to play the East Indian role of Princess Farrah. Why can’t they cast an east Indian actress. There lots of them in the US and in Britain with more credits on their resumes than this actress.

  15. Casey says:

    GUH-BLARGH~!!!

    I didn’t even KNOW the Kalinago were a real people until reading this JUST NOW. I thought they were just a Disney stereotype mish-mash of indigenous islanders….YEECCHH! Now I feel REALLY sick because that whole sequence was my favorite part in the movie! X{

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