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August 6, 2018 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Māori & Mainstream Media

When I first found out that the producers of the next James Bond instalment were putting out a casting call for a Māori henchman, my natural reflex was to wince. While like many, I am excited for Māori culture to be making its next foray into the 007 legacy, the 2002 Bond movie does not give much promise of character depth. The Pierce Brosnan lead iteration, Die Another Day, featured a Māori henchman by the name of Mr Kil (a decidedly un-Māori name might I add). It also reinforced the association I have of the word “henchman” with lazy writing. With this set as precedence I could all too clearly see myself 18-months or so from now, watching from behind latticed fingers — a position typically reserved for horror movies and watching David Seymour make any kind of formal address.
Diversity in mainstream film and television, though something to be celebrated, gives me a great deal of anxiety. The cultural zeitgeist of film likes to forget that whole period of filmmaking where they dressed up white dudes to portray blatantly offensive depictions of other cultures. And I must confess, when it comes to rewatching Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I think, “okay let’s just fast-forward past the problematic bits”. Hollywood and I have that in common. But as media inches slowly forward, it’s hard not to notice the growing disparity between these emerging, highly complex roles for people-of-colour, and the regurgitated tokenism reminiscent of films gone-by.
So as I sat there trying to decide if this henchman advertisement required characteristics of “authoritative, cunning, ruthless, and loyal” comprised the recipe for a very “tropey” stew, I decided to do a roundup of how our tangata whenua are fairing, depiction-wise, in the time that has passed since a Māori actor first graced the Bond franchise.
I shall begin — in perhaps a feeble attempt to prove that I can produce opinion pieces that aren’t entirely constructed from atop my soap box — with one of my favourites. Fear the Walking Dead, a spinoff to ABC’s television series The Walking Dead, is centred around the blended family of characters Madison Clark and Travis Manawa. Travis Manawa, played by one Mr Cliff Curtis, is an English teacher whose struggle between pacifism and the impulse to protect his family is given significant development and nuance. The showrunners do well to capitalise on the physicality and rich history of Māori hand-combat that appeals to foreign audiences, without likening strength to savagery, or relying on single-dimensional character tropes. Curtis revealed, in an endearingly colloquial interview with Marae TV, that the part had initially been planned to portray a man of Mexican descent, but the concept of an American/Māori lead emerged after conversing with Curtis. Though this is not to say that Curtis is above buying into Hollywood’s affinity for pan-ethnicity, whereby “non-white” is interpreted as passing for any number of apparently interchangeable cultures — where’s the damn eye roll emoji. I empathise with Curtis’ position. Māori roles are not going to roll around every day. But you gotta wonder, maybe a Colombian drug-lord should be played by a Colombian person.
Māori actress Keisha Castle-Hughes is in a similar position. Appearing in the HBO series Game of Thrones as Obara Sand, her character’s ethnicity is Dornian — a land in the franchise’s fantastical Westeros that was heavily derived from Medieval Spain. Though I admit, once you start heading into the realm of fantasy you do sort of get a pass when it comes time for casting calls, I think the showrunners need to take much more responsibility when it comes to their representation. Though I love seeing a Kiwi gal make a break into the big time, watching Castle-Hughes wielding what as may as well be a taiaha, as she plays an ethnically-vague enemy that has been given little more dimension than beauty and fierce warrior status (in the show at least)—that wincing feeling starts returning. Creating a story set in a context where people were problematic doesn’t mean you get to be problematic, just saying.
Marvel’s Deadpool 2, while not explicitly featuring a Māori deuteronomist, does very little in the way of disguising Julian Dennison’s New Zealand accent—or its infusion of distinctly Kiwi (and Taika Waititi influenced) humour. Though arguably piggy-backing on Dennison’s role in Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I must admit the archetype is just as refreshing to see the second time around. Dennison plays Russell Collins, an adolescent mutant who possesses the ability to create and control fire. While holding his own in the action-heavy sequences Marvel is known for, Collins does not possess the physical prowess commonly found in Māori leads and often times, must rely on his humour, wit, and sincerity to get himself out of sticky situations.
“Māori as warrior”, while an important component of the Māori cultural identity, when overly represented, runs the risk of producing a singular narrative. This encourages its viewers to produce unintentionally (and at times harmfully) narrow perceptions of the cultures being represented; in most cases, leveraging the “cool factor” from the culture in question, and doing away with any investment in that character itself. It is important for a whole myriad of reasons that these roles serve to bring more value than an excuse for flashy stunts and simply trying to fill a quota.
While Travis Manawa, Russell Collins, and Obera Sand may not be an entirely fair comparison (as Game of Thrones needs a buttload of characters to act as plot fodder), it feels optimistic to hope that the latest Bond film will give the same level of substance to their Māori character as Fear the Walking Dead or Deadpool 2. And if Pierce Brosnan’s latest interview on the direction of the franchise is anything to go by — it sounds like the filmmakers have enough on their hands trying to refurbish the womanising James Bond for the post-#metoo era. But that my friends, is a whole other story.


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