Saturday, June 17, 2006

Boycott Disney, Pirates of the Caribbean

Starting in February of 2005, we began to post a number of items regarding Walt Disney's proposed plans for showing Island Caribs as blood thirsty man eaters. In Dominica, where parts of the film were shot, then Carib Chief Charles Williams loudly protested the movie and condemned select members of the Carib Territory for collaborating with Disney. The Government of Dominica warmly welcomed Disney, guided by the incredible notion that a media giant showing local natives as cannibals would promote tourism to the island. The movie was also shot in St. Vincent. Since then, Chief Williams was deposed by the Government of Dominica (although to what extent Williams embarrassing the government over this issue played any role in the government's decision is unclear for now). Other indigenous communities, including Tainos, Garifuna, and the Caribs of Trinidad, also vigorously protested the movie in the news media. Indian Country Today in the United States ran an editorial that was very critical of Disney's plans.

Now, the movie is about to hit theaters and, if anything, it appears to be worse than was first imagined. A trailer for the film clearly shows the Caribs roasting live people on spits and holding captives to be a stark reminder of some of the most vile imperialistic imagery produced in the early colonial era. Such images are getting a new lease on life thanks to Disney, which with the resources that rival those of a colonial power, has now dedicated itself to popularizing and internationalizing images of the Caribs as "cannibals". You can see the movie trailer at: Images that follow are stills from the trailer, accompanied by one colonial illustration that seems to have been part of the corpus of visual imperial denigrations that the movie so cheerfully enhances.

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.

This action on the part of Disney, flying in the face of countless protests, is not accidental, nor just uninformed carelessness. Let's place these images in their current context as well. This is a time of renewed generalizing about the "non-West" as the "uncivilized" world of inhumane acts of savage atrocities. Anti-immigrant attitudes are on the rise in many Western countries. Anyone "brown-skinned" is deemed a potential terrorist. This is not inflammatory exaggeration on my part: for a glimpse at the tip of the iceberg, look at reports produced within the Canadian media itself:

Many white citizens adjoining Native reserves seem to feel empowered now to express openly derogatory views about Natives, even joining in the occasional riot where they can bash some in the face. A peaceful gathering of Natives in Canada is widely depicted as "terrorism". You don't believe me? Please have a look at pages from the Caledonia Citizens Alliance where members of the public submit their feedback on the issue of the Native reoccupation of their territory.

Images specifically of charred bodies, hung like roasted offerings, have also been popularized in the international press, especially when showing the "horrid" acts of Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah who captured and killed four American mercenaries in March of 2004.

All of the raw material, daily news, centuries of inherited stereotypes, revived bigotry, fear, hatred and paranoia are all out there ready to be fused in people's minds who are thus predisposed to making a series of associations. One line of association is that linking Al Qaida with all Muslims, then immigrants, "brown skin," Natives, and finally Caribs. The other line of associations to complement the first: terrorism, insurgence, resistance and cannibalism.

This is the world we are inheriting, folks! Either we deal with these issues head on, or sit back and let the tide of a new nazism wash over us with the help of our own quiescence.

Disney's concept of family "fun" is about as light hearted as showing groups of Jews as rats. Disney won't do exactly that, since that is anti-semitism, and numerous holocaust memorials tell us "never again." But really, never again? That seems to be either unduly hopeful or just terribly naive.

You are encouraged to actively protest and boycott Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and any and all Disney products. Such cultural imperialism cannot be allowed to pass without consequence.


Kelly Bean said...

In the interest of the devil's advocate may I offer the following ideas:

1. Why can't an IMAGINARY movie just be an imaginary movie, instead of becoming someone's right to protest and be angry? There are plenty of worthy causes to protest...why not actually go and protest anti-immigration ideas, for example?

2. Disney is not responsible for educating people on the correct way to view cultures. They make movies for entertainment value, and they've done a damn good job of it.

3. People are responsible for their own ideas...producers of movies are not responsible for adding a disclaimer in the credits such as "if you don't want to take our IMAGINARY scenario as the truth please visit the library, internet or school".

Just some food for thought.

Maximilian C. Forte said...

"Devil's advocate" is probably an appropriate choice of words in this case. Allow me to respond:

"1. Why can't an IMAGINARY movie just be an imaginary movie, instead of becoming someone's right to protest and be angry? There are plenty of worthy causes to protest...why not actually go and protest anti-immigration ideas, for example?"

--Cannibalism was always more imaginary than real, and the consequences of the negative stigma were always more real than imaginary.

--Also, who says we don't protest other issues? Is this the one and only posting you have read on this blog?

--In addition, with all due respect: did I ask you for ideas about what I should be protesting?

--Should those indigenous communities who have protested this film continue to be dismissed, in the manner that you are doing?

"2...They make movies for entertainment value, and they've done a damn good job of it."

--I am afraid I do not share the same low standards.

"3. People are responsible for their own ideas...producers of movies are not responsible for adding a disclaimer in the credits such as "if you don't want to take our IMAGINARY scenario as the truth please visit the library, internet or school"."

--Then, as I suggested, anything should go. However, the reality is that some topics are definitely prohibited, and others actively cultivated. Why do you choose to abide by that?

Maximilian C. Forte said...

Just a follow up to the comment that the movie is "IMAGINARY."

This is indeed a fictional story. the fictional use of cannibalism, and the depiction of aboriginals as ghastly man eating savages, is not reflective of a random, haphazard, truly imaginative choice on the part of the film makers. This fiction is a particularly HISTORICAL one, deeply rooted within the colonial history of the Caribbean. One has to understand that before flippantly waving this issue aside.

As I suggested before, the consequences of misrepresentation are almost always "real world" consequences.

Yes, there are many issues one can rise up to protest. Why does that excuse silence on this issue?

Marc said...

(...), the consequences of misrepresentation are almost always 'real world' consequences", Maximilian Forte, you do really have a point here and I fully agree with you. Unfortunately stereotypes, especially ethnic stereotypes, are indeed a very dangerous tool.
I have been a careful reader of this blog (unfortunately not a writer so far) for a long time now but this entry (and the previous ones on the issue) really have twisted my mind. I do understand the matter and I can re-enact the concern. Very "helpful" I see the experiences of your own field research. If Dominican Caribs feel hurt and offended by the representation of their ancestors as cannibals, if they interpret the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean 2" like this, I can only call for support of their approach of protest. And maybe anthropologists indeed are the ones who should step in here, something that has been demanded for so long, but complied too little.

Nevertheless, without putting up the glory to Disney like in a previous comment, I tend to call the movie "imaginary without causes", even if based on a historical background presented upon very little facts (and false facts), to me personally “Pirates of the Caribbean” is simply a funny and exaggerated movie (but I haven’t seen part II so far). I even think that the use of a stereotype as such might bear the possibility not to throw stereotypes overboard but to show how inappropriate they actually are. But this, as I stated in my own (”) blog warauduati, might be a very naïve point of view. I simply have faith in the audience to watch certain sequences with the right assessment, which is to understand that cannibalism as represented in the movie is so much exaggerated that it cannot be true.
Besides the fact that I do not agree with your argumentation, putting a Disney movie like “Pirates of the Caribbean 2” into the same category as Nazi propaganda films, I see another critical point. It might be true that Dominican Caribs and indigenous communities throughout the Lesser Antilles and in the US protest against the movie, but you withhold that others took part in the movie, maybe drawn by the money (selling their culture and tradition?) or by the intention to “raise international consciousness about the Caribs and their traditions” as Carol J. Williams states in the Los Angeles Times (I have to say at this point that I can only refer on things that I have read).

During my field research among the Garífuna in Honduras I found a maybe similar situation regarding tourism: on the one hand some stated that by performing certain music, dances, and stories, they would sell their culture, their values. On the other hand some others stated that by doing the above they would be able to internationally show, what their culture is about, what they stand for, and how to understand their own perspective of history. This would enable them to get a wider audience to listen to what they have to say and to draw attention to who they are, even if it would not match absolute reality. Sure you might say, at least they choose for themselves what to do and not some company as Disney, but it leads to the same internal conflict. Sure as well that tradition of Carib people is not cannibalism in the way “Pirates of the Caribbean 2” might show. And sure that the ones who took part in the movie or the ones that might want to promote their culture might not be interested in doing so by categorising Caribs as cannibals. You might be right in pointing out that a stereotype like this might lead to a generalisation of the Carib as such. Your are certainly right about pointing out that we find a form of cultural imperialism here, but I do not believe that we associate Carib people with the stereotype of cannibalism just by watching “Pirates of the Caribbean”. The movie is playing with a certain stereotype, a certain cliché, indeed, to get a funny moment. It won’t help in diminishing this type of thinking. But we shouldn’t exaggerate a scene like this too much neither. Have faith in the people watching the movie. Don’t underestimate the viewers.

All this surely comes from the perspective of one German anthropologist, who is in his early days of postgraduate studies. We have tons of shows here which are playing with ethnic stereotypes. Everyone knows, but this might be the naïve point of my thinking and a perspective of my own thought, that ethnic stereotypes are only used to cause a laugh on the one hand, but on the other to let everyone know that it is just a stereotype. Some might say, there is truth to every stereotype. I say, use the stereotype to beat what it actually states about someone. A stereotype is a stereotype, and every stereotype is an exaggerated but established truth based upon false interpretation.

Anonymous said...

Dear Marc,

To YOU it may seem like just a funny movies but then again have YOU been taught that your people are idiotic, cannibalistic savages ever since the Europeans arrived?

It's like this, if you get one cut from a razor blade, it might hurt for a bit then heal and still leave a scar. But if you get thousands of them all over, then it'll leave you pretty bloody, hurt and scarred right?

For many of us Caribs this movie is one more cut at us when we are trying to heal. I am more upset at the fact that Disney did not even TRY to work with the Caribs of Dominica to work out a better way for them to be portrayed.

Yes after this movie we will probably go on with our lives, but at some point you just ask when are the lies ever going to end?

Sue Rock said...

Well...... I DID see the movie (it is now three days out) and I can say this - I must have issues....because as a adult growing up in the 60's and 70's, I was shocked horrified and appalled at images that had been shown to be our worst filmaking since the 1940's

Work, tireless work has been done to prove to the greater public that images such as these are damaging, damaging, damaging. Pirates were key to the transatlantic slave trade, as was the East Indian Trading Company, I tried, I really did to enjoy Johnny Depp, and Keira Knightly however, I found myself cheering for the "Crackin" the mythological creature sent by Davy Jones to destroy ships at sea.....

Millions of people - REAL people died at the hands of traders AND pirates.....

Yes, I came home knowing the I truly have issues - sorry, its in my DNA and it is one of the sad and sorry reasons why my own ancestors died on the shores of this country.....

I thought - foolishly perhaps - that it was obvious that these images were offensive......

Maybe we need to see the images in Aladdin, or Arabian Nights of the "savages" and actual "cannibals" that were experienced off the shores of Europe by the well dressed educated North Africans before sensitivity is given a balanced light......

There is too much blood to laugh.....

Anonymous said...

I think just about everything has been said except that films have proven to affect the ideas and beliefs people have - especially when it is new information. An intro to film class will teach you that - at least mine did.

The trouble is - Disney Movies are often the new information our children are receiving and doing most of their learning from. One movie being 1.5 hours long and how many times do they watch them? Children learn by mimicking, not by evaluating. What they see is what they believe to be true and they will test it out. What do you want your children to believe to be true? Fantasy is great for adults with no imaginations, but for children, fantasy needs to be based on morals and ethics of the time. I hope these are not ours.

Anonymous said...

Marc - I don't have faith in the viewers, the state of race relations in the United states and in the rest of the world should undermine anyones confidence in that, especially since repeated images like that condition people.

given what white people have done to native people in the past, they should never depict them in such a manner ever again.

And doesn't the field of anthropology have a very racist and colonialist history? I don't think citing that as one of your credentials gives you any credibility

Maximilian C. Forte said...

I am also an anthropologist, and yes you are right of course Hugo, that anthropology does have a foundation in racism and colonialism.

We were supposed to be trying to change that. Have we succeeded? Maybe not. I sometimes think we are failing better than ever before. As superficial as this may observation may seem, anthropology remains a discipline that is disproportionately white: the vast majority of professors and students are white, even in environments where one would expect otherwise. Something is wrong, we refuse to see it, and we move into the realm of theoretical abstraction, nuance, and socially disconnected research.

Anonymous said...

If you go dancing in glass slipers, your feet will bleed. If we make no distinction between fantasy and reality, then the only art your society can have is Maoist art.

The Pirates of the Caribbean films are clearly fantasy with a "Hollywood" style grasp of history. It's clearly a fairy tale, and a farce as well. Only mentally defective people could see this as a source of real history or even as a serious historical drama.

More importantly, the Caribs are very obscure here in the states. Far more viewers are going to get the H.P.Lovecraft references than conect the film canibals with the Carib people.

Maximilian C. Forte said...

Dear Thomas Devine,

as a tribute to the "but it's only fantasy" argument, yours is the last post I will publish that takes that line of reasoning.

It is becoming rather tiresome to witness counter critics stuffing words into the mouths of those calling for this boycott. To my knowledge, nobody has argued that this film is meant to be serious history...and if you had looked at the previous postings you would have seen that this particular point has been addressed repeatedly.

No, we do not believe lies to be true--sorry, that's not our argument. We believe lies must be challenged, and I personally believe that if one is going to be imaginative and creative, then use new material, not well worn colonial slander built on racist foundations.

Some of you seem to have immense difficulty grasping this very basic point, which leads me to think of directing your phrase, "metally defective people," back to the authors of these counter criticisms.