Meta-jokes are an easy way to point out the ridiculousness of Hollywood tropes and stereotypes. Masters of the form include the Scream series (1996-2011), which takes aim at the impossibility of slasher films. Or Community (2009- ), which is purposely about nothing but itself and how much sitcoms have never made sense. But when does meta-narrative stop referencing reality and seem to become about itself and nothing else? Where do these movie tropes come from, and what exactly were they originally?
As I write this, George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” (1982) is playing. I’m in a bar, drinking Myer’s Rum, because rum seems appropriate after a pirate movie. But why? Did pirates really drink rum? I don’t know, but they did spend a lot of time in the Caribbean, so maybe. Anyway, “Bad to the Bone” is playing in a dive bar lit mostly by orange Christmas lights. Does anyone associate this song with badassery anymore? The over-emphasized shuffle beat, cartoonish blues guitar, the saxophone for crissakes—to me, this song seems like a joke about badassery. Not the entrance music for the most dangerous dude ever. This is a bit how I feel about Hollywood pirates.
The Pirates: Band of Misfits (2012) isn’t remotely about Sir Francis Drake, Blackbeard, or anyone from Somalia. It’s about Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp. In the first scene with our band of misfits, the crew argues over the best part about being a pirate. It doesn’t matter what they’re arguing over, there’s no best thing about being a pirate. In all likelihood, you’re poor, press-ganged in service, syphilitic, ridden with scurvy, But this is a children’s movie, so the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant, who I am officially accusing of being drunk during the entire voice recording) declares that the best thing about being a pirate is Ham Nite. No word on the pressing question of where the hell do pirates find ham?
Also featured in this adventure are some more insidious pirate stereotypes—Salma Hayek takes a break from selling burgers with her body (but not in the Kate Upton, Paris Hilton, Padma Lakshmi, or Kim Kardashian way) to become a buxom, large-assed but small-hipped, ambiguously Latina who’s described as “deadly as [she is] beautiful.” There’s also a Jamaican pirate, who I’m sure has a name beyond his racial identification, but you wouldn’t know it upon one viewing. Also Jeremy Piven is here, providing the voice for an animated pirate version of Jeremy Piven—his entrance involves a whale intentionally beaching itself, then rolling its tongue out red carpet-style so Piven can slide in on a wave of (Ari) gold. But Piven is a bad guy, so his name Black Bellamy (shoutout to Jock Jams).
Seriously, though. This movie is set in three places: pirate ships, Victorian England, and an ambiguous Singapore stand-in called Blood Island, which is the only place in the movie where you see a non-white person. This seems odd, as pirates sailed around the world, interacting and crewing ships with Africans, Native Americans, Asians, Indians, and Middle Eastern people. Perhaps this is deliberate on the filmmakers’ part. After all, the movie takes place during Queen Victoria’s reign, a full 200 years after the Golden Age of Piracy, and also high on the list of periods in history when white people were at their worst.
“Chris, why do you care? It’s a damn kids’ movie. There are musical numbers, for crissakes.” Because kids remember more than you think. They soak things up, and even if it’s supposed to be harmless fun, it’s hard to argue that a movie trafficking in so many stereotypes is harmless. I love children’s movies: Wall-E (2008), Toy Story (1995), Shrek (2001), most Disney animated movies. And I’m certainly not arguing that art needs to be instructive or preachy. But The Pirates isn’t even remotely interesting or heartwarming. Shouldn’t art have a responsibility to be either interesting or instructive (or, God forbid, both)?
I’ll freely admit that I’ve always loved pirates, the ocean, islands, tall ships, etc. Yes, it comes from a cartoonishly romantic affection developed in childhood. I loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasue Island (1883), and I’ll go fisticuffs on anyone who thinks Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) is better than Muppet Treasure Island (1996). I loved the idea of traveling around the world, learning how to sail, and yes, singing sea chanteys with fine broads. J-Depp was right, pirates were basically colonial rock stars. Then I learned that pirates were at the forefront of exploring new places while also being one of the lowest classes in one of the most economically and socially unequal societies of all time, and pirates became even more interesting. Everything about that sentence is problematic. It almost begs for a real period piece to be made. A genuinely historical pirate film could be illuminating, and it could perhaps provide some historical frame to discuss today’s piracy problem. Rather than reflexively talk about how evil these high-seas Somali gangsters are, we could discuss the kind of economic straits that breed that degree of criminality. We could stop making pirates romantic figures in film and demons in the real world and start considering what leads to piracy.
Instead, Hollywood has created this idea of swashbuckling British anti-heroes who have luxuriant beards (a staple of Hugh Grant’s character. Whether or not Grant can actually grow a beard was not known at press time), bang 36-24-36 Hispanic women, and are good with swords. They have magnificent ships that they only steer when things get too tough for their first mate. They board other boats and steal gold at every opportunity, while besting any and all challengers at swordsmanship. They say adorable things like “avast, I’m here for your gold” and “shiver me timbers” and “ARR.” The argument against these Pirate Captains (again, the name of the protagonist of this movie) is essentially the argument against any overly masculine anti-hero. He’s drunk and a loner because that’s easier than dealing with his feelings, but he’s preternaturally brilliant at handling any challenge that comes his way. In the meantime, Jamaican, Hispanic, Polynesian, Spanish, and every other non-white person that can inhabit a pirate movie are relegated to the same racist stereotypes that have been propagated since these pirates were swashbuckling around the New World.
Pirates in film haven’t been pirates for a long time. While it’s easy to keep ripping off Robert Louis Stevenson, wouldn’t you rather see an interesting historical drama than spend another two hours rolling your eyes at Johnny Depp?