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July 10, 2006


Andrew Hickey

Good stuff here (though I'll probably still watch the thing, just as I did with Kong...).
The last link is wrong though - points to the same review as the earlier one.


Oops! Thanks Andrew--I didn't mean to deprive you of an incredibly formulaic discussion.

Dave Intermittent

At the risk of starting an incredibly formulatic discussion: this is huge issue for genre films to navigate, especially those that have roots in the pulps, since some of these wonky racial assumptions are woven into their DNA. It's not accident that the best recent Westerns feature only cowboys.

Dave Intermittent

Formulatic discussions being fantastic versions of formulaic discussions, of course.


Thanks for putting into words so well what made me so uncomfortable about this movie.

I'm still irritated over the fact that there were only two female roles in this movie, and one of them was the "magical negro".


"The magical negro"--that's the perfect term, and one I should have used. Any readers who think characters like Tia Dalma are "positive" (because they're not trying to eat the white people, I guess) should check out this Wikipedia entry for more information.

Although in the way of most Wikipedia entries on cultural controversies, I don't think it represents the criticism all that well. The authors say that critics like Spike Lee or Aaron Magruder "believe that the use of this stock character is racist, because it perpetuates the idea that blacks should be subordinate to whites." Well, ultimately, yes, but it's not like the Tia Dalmas are directly promoting that idea a la Stepin Fetchit. I could see someone reading that description, deciding they haven't seen it in characters like Tia Dalma or Bagger Vance, and concluding that the critics are full of shit (and their favorite movies are off the hook).

The magical negro is a little more insidious than that. While they are allied with the white hero, the problem is that the hero is always white, and the magical negro is most definitely not an equal partner. They're the guru, sidekick, advisor, or cheerleader--their job is to get the white heroes, the really important characters, morally or spiritually in shape. And so while the movies pretend to flatter blacks by claiming they're more spiritual (just a modern version of the old "noble savage" stereotype) they're always pressing them into servicing white folks' souls. And that's how the magical negro perpetuates one very particular kind of subordination.

It's yet another example of how "positive" stereotypes are no better than overtly negative ones.

My thoughts on the "only two women" issue are a little different, and may require a little more room, but I'll weigh in on that eventually.


Reconstructing a comment that got lost to Typepad maintenance--Dave, part of what's so galling about Dead Man's Chest is that the stereotypes were completely unnecessary to both the story and the pirate genre.

I can understand why Peter Jackson had to include some version of the Skull Islanders--it would be difficult to remake King Kong without them--and that's why I'm inclined to cut him a little more slack. (Although this begs the question of whether the world really needed a modern remake of a racist 1930s parable in the first place; and it ignores the disconnect between the New York scenes, which ache for a kind of social realism, and the out and out racial caricature of Skull Island.)

But did Dead Man's Chest really need the cannibals, or the magical negro priestess? Did it need to make the treacherous crew dark-skinned and the loyal one white? Why not ignore the wonky racial assumptions entirely?

Fiction has ancestors, but no DNA--nothing that can't be changed if the creators are willing. And the creators of Dead Man's Chest so clearly weren't.



On Tia Dalma existing only to service the white hero's plot: I'm not sure yet. Remember this was the first part of a two-part story. Also remember that this is a film that goes out of its way to slap us in the face with the idea that everyone has a non-altruistic agenda. Given that, Dalma's lack of apparent motivation looks less like racist bad writing and more like deliberate mystery that's going to get a big revelation.

The cannibal island stuff was despicable, though.

Dave Intermittent


I actually saw that comment in the brief period it was up. Thought maybe you pulled it for some reason.

Anyway. I haven't seen DMC yet, so I can't respond to the particular points raised, though I have no reason to doubt your take on the film. In any event, my point wasn't to justify film racism, either in DMC or elsewhere, but to point out that, as genre films get more popular, it's going to be interesting to see how the racism inherent in some genres gets dealt with. Fiction may not have DNA, but it's ancestors aren't dead; they're still taking their turn on the stage for the paying crowd, warts and all.

Plese do excuse the mutated and butchered a metaphor.

At the risk of overstating my case: the lost civilation/explorer genre (inclusive of, say, King Kong, Raiders, the Mummy, etc) is built on a whole series of colonialist assumptions, and can't function without them; the exotic as scary and in need of violent taming, but for the lusty native women, in need of taming of a different sort. As you said, without Skull Island, you've got no Kong. Of course, the degree each film needs to zealously embrace its pedigree is debatable; but it can't, I think, reject it entirely.

Or, like I said above, Westerns. I'm not certain that anyone has the ability to make a "cowboys and indians" movie anymore; either the Native Americans wind up as savages or else (in the variation of the magical negro) as the wise people of the earth, which, as you and Kitty note, denies the humanity of people in a less obvious, but just as pernicous, way. You can still make westerns, and it assuredly possible to make a western with Native Americans, but it would take an amount of skill and criticality I'm not certain many folks possess.

To be clear: I'm not arguing we should accept these portrayals, in these or any other films. And maybe there are ways, for each particular film, to avoid or minimize them. But those ways are not necassarily obvious, and the plot contortions necessary in some (perhaps limited) circumstances will be interesting to watch.

Interesting in the critical sense of the term of course; a high caveat to statement ration in this comment.

While we're on the topic, thoughts on the Great Ten?


You already said it. "Mother of Champions"? Good lord... The worst part is, they're so clearly Morrison's handiwork. I doubt Waid, Johns, or Rucka could have thought up a woman who births litters of superhumans, and for once their lack of imagination is enviable.

I don't think it's necessarily a problem that the Great Ten are defined by their Chinese-ness: every foreign superhero in American comics is defined by their non-Americanness, from Canada outwards. And the attempts to do non-foreign foreigners, the Chinese Starmen if you will, usually fall flat without the foreign hook--maybe this is why Vindicator/Guardian was so disposable. (The costume design was his one saving grace.) Busiek had some interesting thoughts on this in the Astro City letter column--they basically boiled down to embracing the fact that the most significant things about these foreign characters will be their foreignness.

None of which means you should design the characters around the worst stereotypes about their culture. Jesus.

Phil: I don't buy the wait-and-see excuse when it's applied to comics, either--we evaluate these things in the form they come to us, and in this movie Tia Dalma is a typical example of the magical negro. More importantly, I'm not sure that adding a few more convolutions to the plot actually changes Tia Dalma's overall dramatic role--she still exists to give the white heroes spiritual guidance and point them in the right direction to carry out their plot.

Jason Andrew

There is quite a bit of speculation about Tia Dalma's character.

Some people seem to think that she is the goddess that jilted Davy Jones. If that is true, she becomes the mastermind behind the whole triology.

1. She gave Jack the compass.
2. Caused Davy Jones to take out his heart.
3. Likely helped Jack get the Black Pearl from Davy

The while thing then hinges on IF she has solid motivations. If she doesn't, then then she does fall into the sterotype.

The cannibal scenes were annoying in general because they were a waste and I see your point about them and also about the the non-white portion of the crew.


Good review. I thought the same thing.

the angry black woman

Excellent post. It's interesting how much of this stuff flowed over me when I watched the movie. I was too busy staring at orlando Bloom and going "Oh, he's soooo pretty." But, you're right, completely boring. I'm sure plenty of other people didn't even twich during the cannibal section or notice that only the dark crewmen fell to their deaths. The shiny was so very.... shiny.


Jason, wasn't Davey Jones' lover supposed to be a goddess of the sea? It strikes me as odd that a goddess of the sea would be living inland. That would hardly be the largest inconsistency in these movies, though.

In any case, I think explanations like yours or Phil's are somewhat orthogonal to my point: yes, plotwise Tia Dalma might turn out to have some sinister agenda (there's also a popular theory that she set up Sparrow's death in order to resurrect Barbossa), but structurally she's still the magical negro whether she has a sinister agenda or not. In fact, having a sinister agenda might make her the magical negro and just another one of the movie's treacherous black faces. Either way her role is still providing spiritual guidance for the whites, in accordance with the cliche.


In another thread Erik Germani writes, "you pretty much systematically take each black character and name it as some sort of stereotype - my question is: what are examples of positive black characters? For instance, I thought the black ship's officer was a positive character - he was heroic and level-headed. But this apparently is a slave character."

First of all, I might change your terminology a little bit--looking for "positive" black characters leads to "positive" but equally essentializing stereotypes like the magical negro. I wouldn't be surprised if Tia Dalma were created to be just such a character, so viewers who felt queasy about the cannibals could comfort themselves that the film included a "positive" minority. As if one balanced the other.

I don't think minority characters need to be positive--just as fleshed-out, complicated, and above all non-stereotypical as white male ones. I don't think any of the minority characters in Dead Man's Chest fit that bill.

I assume the black ship's officer you're referring to is the guy in King Kong. He, too, strikes me as another attempt to provide "balance" and defuse charges of racism, although the end result is a fairly bloodless character. He exists to assuage our guilt and cover Peter Jackson's ass but he doesn't bring much else to the table. Unfortunately Jackson soon slots him into another venerable role for minority characters: cannon fodder.

I can at least appreciate that Jackson is trying to edge around the racism of his source, but his solution is to invoke another, more recent set of cinema stereotypes. Maybe our movies wouldn't have these problems if they focused on telling stories for the present instead of animating the cliches of the past.

Bill Hiers

With regards to racism in Peter Jackson's King Kong, why does no one ever mention how much more progressive the 1976 movie is in this regard? That film's token black sailor named Boan actually survives the log-tipping scene where all of the white crew members die, whereas Jackson's token black sailor named Hayes bites the big one in his film's version of that very scene.

In fact, whenever people bring up the idea of Hollywood racism and complain about the black guy(s) always dying, I always wonder why King Kong 1976 never gets a mention as one of the movies that (for all its faults) went against the norm and not only didn't kill off its sole black sailor first, but also spared him outright.


I haven't seen the de Laurentis remake, but I have to say this is virtually the first positive comment I've ever heard about it (in regards to race or anything else). According to most of the accounts I've read de Laurentis' Skull Islanders were just as bad as the originals, and this comment doesn't inspire confidence in the producers. Glad to hear it avoided at least one cliche.

This particular example aside, it strikes me as plausible that 1976 was in some ways more racially progressive than 2006. Deeply depressing, but plausible.


I also felt uncomfortable during the entire cannibal sequence for all reasons mentioned above and the proximity to last year's King Kong.

The racism of DMC went over the top with me during the scene where the "chinese" pirate (of Davy Jones' crew) lost his head and began talking in Cantonese for comic relief. We have a long way to go, folks.


I think by that point in the movie I'd given up counting, but yeah, there's another one.

These movies are making me nostalgic for Jar Jar Binks. Remember when this stuff was at least superficially coded?


I figured the blackened teeth/lips were a variant on West African henna fashions. Though I could have done without the bloodshot eyes, myself.

I was trying very, very hard to ignore the implicit racism in the cannibalism scene. But the cage full of non-white guys? Was just too hard to ignore. Look! We used affirmative action to hire our pirate extras! We have a diverse, multi-racial crew of brigands -- whoops. Nevermind, now we don't!

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