Samira Ahmed: Even high seas pirates can cut through whitewashing

There's something rum about the new Pirates of the Caribbean film...

There is a strange feeling that settles on you within the first half hour of the new Disney Pirates of the Caribbean film. And it’s not the presence of the reputationally tarnished Johnny Depp as a comedy alcoholic. Nor is it the laboured joke about the scientific Beauty-and-the-Beast-Belle-like heroine Carina being confused with a prostitute by the pirates. “I’m a HOROLOGIST.” Or even one of the two other women in the film with a speaking part being the fat, ugly and ginger one Sparrow is forced to marry. No, it is not quite any of those things.

What weirds you out is the realisation that you’re watching a comedy lavishly recreating the peak of the slave trade-era Caribbean and there’s not a single reference to it anywhere. Not in the crowd of entirely white people running around as the pirate gang come to rescue Jack Sparrow from a hanging. Not when the Royal Navy ship turns up with its nasty captain boasting about how the British Empire rules the waves.

Now you might say, it’s taken you five films to notice this? And in a film full of magic curses and ghosts? Twitter fans inform me there’ve even been references to Sparrow’s opposition to slavery in earlier films, though one is in a deleted scene. Oh and just to declare all the facts, there are at least two black pirates in the crew in this latest film. Hurrah. If you read my column in January you’d remember how I praised Disney for how far it’s embedded progressive values in films such as Moana.

But what POTC5 reveals is an interesting challenge around mainstream culture. Does selective whitewashing matter? I mean, it’s just a summer blockbuster, right?

The films were spawned from one of Walt Disney’s original rides at Disneyland. Right through till 1996 visitors rode in boats through a sacking of a Caribbean town, with audio-animatronic screaming women being chased by leering pirates and auctioned off as sex slaves. Seriously. It really didn’t bother people. I visited several times over my childhood and like all girls growing up in the 1970s and ’80s I avoided thinking about what it represented. So much film and TV entertainment in my youth was full of what teens would now call “rapey-ness”. And 21 years on from its
disappearance I enjoy freaking out younger people by describing the ride’s original tastelessness. Ask yourself, would it be okay to have it back now? Really? Thought not.

When Disney finally decided the raping-women sequence was outdated, I reported on it while the BBC’s LA correspondent. In a triumph of efficient repurposing the women would still flee the pirates but holding plates of delicious food. So THAT’S what the pirates were after.

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Perhaps we should think of the POTC films like steampunk fiction. Steampunk has been described as a triumphant inclusive reclaiming of Victorian imperial and industrial culture without the racism and sexism. With one “feisty” woman who must always be rescued, POTC5 just doesn’t qualify.

I once attempted my own revisionist fiction. As a teenager I began a Sherlock Holmes novel (never finished). It featured him as a student teaming up with Edwardian “undergraduettes” to tackle sex trafficking and discovering his wealthy father was involved. It was a proudly consciousness-raising plot, though I say so myself.

If you want to read a successful attempt, check out the novel Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. The former basketball star and Bruce Lee’s co-star in Game of Death imagines Sherlock’s big brother as a young man and his Trinidadian best friend tackling an attempt to revive slavery in the Caribbean. It was based on historical research about both abolition and the diversity of Victorian London.

Cultural institutions should not be in the business of selective silence. On Front Row I recently challenged RIBA North, the new architectural centre opening in Liverpool, about why they had no mention of slavery in their promotional film or literature about the city’s magnificent architectural legacy. Most listeners who contacted me were glad, believing that an honest reckoning with the past is not incompatible with celebrating the present.

I feel there’s unfinished business with Disney’s Pirates franchise. Disney seems comfortable enough with its current version to have got Johnny Depp in costume cavorting in the LA Disneyland ride as publicity for the film but there is a backlash against honesty about our racist and misogynistic past in Trump’s America and Brexit Britain. And Jack Sparrow, we need you to be part of the fightback.

Samira Ahmed is a columnist for The Big Issue. She is a journalist and broadcaster.