As one of the Curmudgeons used to say, this is not a review. There's no point to reviewing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, a movie that has proven quite review-proof. Hell, you've probably already seen it anyway, quite possibly in a theater filled with people your own age or older dressed in halfassed or occasionally fullassed pirate "garb."
If this were a review I might ask how a movie can run more than two hours and post several prolonged climaxes and still not have an ending. I might bemoan that every successful franchise tries to force itself into the Star Wars trilogy model, complete with the requisite dead, captive, or comatose protagonist at the end of the second installment, observing that this one skips the carbonite and sends its hero straight into a floating Sarlacc Pit. I might wonder why, given the runaway popularity of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, the producers still gave more screen time to boring Orlando Bloom.
But it's already too late, was always already too late, for reviews, even spot-on ones, so this is not a review. It's a response to one dull, disturbing, and completely unnecessary element that all but ruined the movie.
The trouble starts with an overlong sequence in which Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and the rest of the crew of the Black Pearl find themselves captives on an island. The eventual escape is choreographed amusingly enough but the entire episode is a narrative dead end, an obstacle to getting the movie doing what it should have been doing all along--imitating the first one with some more swashbuckling on the high seas.
Instead we get what feels like a solid hour or so of vintage racial caricatures as the pirates are held captive by savage natives. Of course they're cannibals, even if we now know that stories of Caribbean cannibalism were rumors used to justify European colonialism and slavery. (The term "cannibal" comes from a name Columbus used for the Carib nations; apparently it originally meant "brave and daring" to the Spanish and had nothing to do with eating human flesh.) Of course Jack Sparrow is their white god.
But none of this is supposed to be real, right? I'm pretty sure real pirates didn't have swordfights in runaway mill wheels or get chased by giant krakens either. Everything in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Placeholder Before the Third and Hopefully Final Movie is drawn from a surprisingly shallow repository of cliches, but there's a difference with the cannibal stuff. Two differences, actually: it uncritically recycles racist propaganda and it's part of a larger pattern of insulting portrayals of nonwhite characters. When a fatal fall in the same sequence kills half the crew of the Black Pearl--the reckless, treacherous half, so they deserve it--it claims all of the nonwhite pirates. Treacherous white characters like Jack Sparrow or Elizabeth Swann or Gareth from The Office and the guy who got his thumbs broken on Seinfeld will live to see the third installment, but the dark-skinned ones aren't so lucky. And while the surviving white pirates all have some kind of identifying gimmick or maybe even a name, the darker shipmates are just anonymous scum.
Treachery, cannibalism, and cannon fodder aren't the only roles for nonwhite characters. They have one more part to play, the same one as always: providing spiritual guidance for the white leads. Jack and company escape the anthropophagists but not the stereotypes; their next port of call is some sort of maroon settlement with a hammy voodoo priestess who sets them on the right path (although, in the manner of this movie, she tells them almost nothing they don't already know or need to know--the better to stretch this wafer-thin plot over two and a half hours, and to make sure no audience member is too stupid to follow along). Oh, and she flirts with every attractive male in sight, just another hypersexualized black character. The rotting teeth, I concede, are a novelty.
All these screaming cannibals and voodoo hags are queasily reminiscent of the Skull Islanders in Peter Jackson's King Kong, but Pirates lacks even the arch movie quotations and pretentious Conrad passages that served as Jackson's halfhearted acknowledgement that there is something objectionable about his loving recreation of the racist fantasies of the 1930s. At least Jackson knows his source material is troubling and tries to anticipate that response; Pirates enthusiastically embraces every stereotype it can find without considering where they come from or what baggage they might carry.
Responding to these stereotypes is difficult. It's not enough to fold our arms and frown and say these caricatures are racist (although they certainly are), as if that label alone could change people's minds, because clearly it doesn't. Instead it triggers a tiresome confrontation where the script runs something like this: piece of pop culture makes disturbing or outrageous use of racial stereotypes. Critic (preferably one of those elitist journalists or academics) calls it racist, confident that this settles the matter. Indignant fans flood comment box, accusations of political correctness mingling with declarations that you're not supposed to take pop culture seriously anyway, frequently delivered with a spittle-flinging rancor that makes the critic's point better than they ever could. Go here for a typical example. What's your favorite reply--the guy who praises Lord of the Rings for showing "that a whites-only movie, geared toward a white audience, can succeed at the box office" (at last, a movie white people can watch!) or the guy who seems to think Moby Dick doesn't have any subtext? Meanwhile the next blockbuster to feature cannibal darkies is already in postproduction.
Maybe we shouldn't settle for merely identifying racist stereotypes as if we expect everybody to agree that they persist in our popular culture and that they're a problem--two assumptions we can't afford. Maybe we need to explain why they're a problem: in the case of Pirates because they reduce all nonwhites to mindless savages, backstabbing idiots, or cheerleaders for white people.
Most importantly, maybe we should ask why, in the twenty-first century, we're still taking such great pleasure from the racist propaganda of the twentieth century, or the nineteenth... or, now that Dead Man's Chest has bested all competitors, the fifteenth. Maybe we need to mock these caricatures relentlessly wherever we find them.
As long as we don't do it in a review.