Deeps > Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic > History > Disneyfied Histories: Disney’s Intentional Inaccuracy, Historical Films, and The Black Atlantic > Pirates of the Caribbean: The (Almost) Slaveless Caribbean, Race, and the Black Atlantic
Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise began as a theme park ride. The first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, became a runaway hit in 2003, surprising many who believed the pirate genre was dead. Johnny Depp, critically acclaimed for his performance of Captain Jack Sparrow, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards. Disney made two more sequels starring the original cast and a fourth film (a potential fifth movie is scheduled but not yet green-lit). The franchise, in fact, includes books, action figures, video games, and other merchandise (as do many Disney properties) that tie into the film series.
So what does a comedy/action pirate franchise have to do with the Black Atlantic?
To answer this question, I want to unpack The Curse of the Black Pearl and the third film, At World’s End in order to examine how Disney portrays the history of the Caribbean in terms of piracy and what that means for Black Atlantic studies. Set roughly around the mid-1700s, although no specific time is given, The Curse of the Black Pearl avoids directly dealing with slavery much in the same way The Princess and the Frog skirted the issue of segregation in 1920s New Orleans. Despite taking place in Jamaica, most signs of colonial life are indistinguishable. One of the first hints the audience receives of potential slaves existing or having existed at one time in the Caribbean are the black members of the the Black Pearl‘s crew.
As seen in this trailer, there are a few black crew members seen in the background:
But, if the movie is simply taken at face value, the audience receives no hint of their backstory. Only in the supplemental movie material Pirates of the Caribbean: The Complete Visual Guide does slavery come into play. The guide states that the ships crew “come from a dozen nations, and include escaped slaves from West Africa and Hispaniola.”[i]
In Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End, a former slave character takes a more prominent role. The writers, as they explain in the clip below, wanted to make the third film “more global,” so they created pirate lords of multiple races, including Gentleman Jocard.
He appears as a pirate lord in the Brethren Court, but his backstory is once again only revealed outside of the main film’s dialogue. His origin, as a slave who rebelled against his master and escaped to become a pirate, only becomes known through more supplemental materials, in this case novels such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Legends of the Brethren Court.
According to Arne Bialushewski, the portrayal of piracy as a safe harbor for blacks and the romanticization of pirates as liberals in favor of free men and racial equality (at least to some degree) is based in fiction. As he says,
There is no indication that pirate crews offered slaves any kind of freedom that was denied them elsewhere in the Atlantic World. Several references show that pirates utilized a limited number of slaves for subordinate tasks on their vessels. Furthermore, marauding bands that had black men on board often left them behind when provisions ran low or when being pursued by naval forces. This suggests that these men of African descent were not integrated into pirate gangs and were not treated as equals. Their status may be considered slave-like. Pirates usually did not sell slaves, so their usage of this property was limited to practical uses during their exploits, particularly in the last few years of pirate activity.”[ii]
Anita Waters furthers this claim:
The European-American picture of pirates stands in stark contrast to the view of pirates in black Jamaican culture, which centers squarely on the tortures, murders and other atrocities against innocent people carried out by actual pirates. In Afro-Jamaican culture, pirates are plantation elite who controlled the enslaved labor of Africans.[iii]
Interestingly, a deleted scene from the third film explicitly deals with slavery. And yet, this is one of the scenes removed from the final product.
In the scene, Jack states, “People ain’t cargo, mate.” Beckett, referring to the liberation of the slaves, states, “Your good deed cost me, Jack.”
This is the version that made it into the film:
Here, all references to slavery and liberation have been removed, perhaps to save time (the film clocks at nearly three hours). But even if the scene were included in its original form, how does it function? Well, the information that Jack has liberated slaves from the East India Company (who is, more or less, out to eradicate piracy and the heroes of the story) simply reenforces what the audience is supposed to already think about Jack and Beckett. Jack wants to liberate slaves, so he is good. Beckett sees humans as cargo and does not care what happens to others so long as he has power and money, therefore he is bad.
Sure, the deleted scene adds depth and at least acknowledges slavery existed in the Caribbean during the 1700s. But does the movie want to grapple with the issues of slavery, piracy, and capitalism in detail? Of course not — this is an action/adventure with comedic elements. Hinting at a horrendous event as a plot device and making a character more sympathetic is one thing, actually examining history is entirely another.
Waters isn’t wrong in her 2006 prediction that the Pirates sequels locate themselves in “normal culture” and reinforce the European romantic-view of pirates”
Captain Jack Sparrow will probably exemplify the free living and indepedent adventurer, loyal to his own personal code. Eroticized but free of familial obligations, he’ll have some encounter with a “dusky daughter” or some other exotic object of desire. Caribbean cultures will be short-changed and misrepresented.”[iii]
To be honest, this is exactly what happens in all three Pirates sequels, more or less. Tia Dalma, the most prominent black character in the sequels and obeah priestess, acts as more of a plot device than an fleshed out character. Kameelah Martin Samuel argues that Disney uses her as a “gimmick:”
Tia Dalma/Calypso continues to function as a device to reify a more vulgar mode of colonialism via piracy, even if she is read as Yemonja or Oshun. That Calypso is an “imagineered” sea goddess with superficial ties (at best) to traditional African religions reflects the degree to which conjure, obeah, Vodou, and the like are employed as a gimmick by Disney. They are tools used to recognize half-heartedly marginalized and othered religions constructed from the New World’s slave past. The gimmick offered by the film series fails to fulfill the expectations of a developed, culturally relevant priestess of Afro-Caribbean religion who is not constructed “primarily for the pleasure of white spectators (male or female)” (Diawara 1988, 71). The Disneyfication of histories, cultural narratives, and myths is one of the most lasting types of epistemic violence perpetuated against marginalized groups.[iv]
Although few characters act as more than set pieces or caricatures in these films, Tia Dalma, perhaps, suffers most from this development because she simply becomes a plot device to be controlled. She appears in order to give exposition, act as a love interest to pirates, and, finally, becomes nothing more than a cheap special effect. In her transformation from Tia to Calypso, then, she literally becomes a gimmick produced by movie technology, not by magic or the supernatural relating to the beliefs she is supposed to “represent.”
Pirates of the Caribbean isn’t about the Caribbean or the cultures that were a part of the 1700s. Even British Caribbean history is not honored in the films. Port Royal, thriving in the 17th-century, was admittedly known for pirates:
After 1670, the importance of Port Royal and Jamaica to England was increasingly due to trade in slaves, sugar, and raw materials. It became the mercantile center of the Caribbean, with vast amounts of goods flowing in and out of its harbor as part of an expansive trade network, which included trading and/or looting of coastal Spanish towns throughout Spanish America. It was a wealthy city of merchants, artisans, ships’ captains, slaves, and, of course, notorious pirates, who gave it its ‘wickedest city in the world’ reputation.”[v]
However, by the 1700s, which is when the main action of films take place in Port Royal, the city had already become useless after an earthquake in 1692
Following the earthquake, Port Royal underwent a dramatic revival only to fall again when it was ravaged by fire in 1703. A total of 16 hurricanes between 1712 and 1951 have consistently smashed Jamaica, as have an additional six earthquakes between 1770 and 1956 […] Following a severe storm, a hurricane, and two earthquakes in 1722, Port Royal as it once was disappeared for the last time.” [v]
Jack Sparrow and these pirates are supposed to be fun, represent freedom, and have a romance or two. Serious subjects such as race, Caribbean culture, otherness, gender, ect. cannot be taken up by this type of film. This film cannot sustain history of any sort. Disney may gesture at history and globalism, but only for storytelling purposes that advance the action sequences or place characters in a position to move the plot along. Quick moments, such floating debris with sharks swimming around the wreckage, may gesture at the images produced by the historical Caribbean but little else in this franchise does.
[i] Pirates of the Caribbean: The Complete Visual Guide
How to cite this project: Sasha Panaram, Hannah Rogers, Thayne Stoddard. “Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic.” Deeps, (Accessed on Date) http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/