REVIEW: ‘Our Flag Means Death’ resists performative representation to deliver comedy gold

By Ali Mai

Mar 29, 2022 | Featured six, Reviews | 0 comments

//HBO Max’s “Our Flag means Death” delivers a fresh comedy with dynamic queer and BIPOC characters—without making them fight for screen time. Graphic by Ali Mai | alimai@msmayhem.com

HBO Max’s “Our Flag Means Death,” a loose retelling of the historical figure the “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet, has been applauded for its comedic writing and all-star cast. But its most celebrated feat is how it centers queer characters and people of color.

Note: This review contains spoilers.

The first season from creator David Jenkins concluded last week with a 10-episode run. Though it’s a period piece, the golden age of piracy is seen through the lens of rom-com and workplace comedy genres.

“Our Flag Means Death” follows the curious story of Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), a wealthy landowner from Barbados who abandoned his family for a life of inept piracy in 1717. Unlike pirates who chose their lifestyle out of necessity, Bonnet buys his ship, the Revenge, and pays his crew wages rather than sharing a part of the plunder from piracy. After his adventures are nearly cut short, thanks to his naivety, the underqualified captain meets the illustrious Edward Teach (or Thache), better known as Blackbeard (Taika Waititi). 

The slow-burn romance of Bonnet and Blackbeard (referred to as BlackBonnet by fans) leads the storyline, filled with familiar tropes seen in heteronormative rom-coms. They are two men from vastly different backgrounds, challenging one another to grow. Blackbeard teaches Bonnet how to be a good—well, better—pirate, and in return, Bonnet shows Blackbeard that there’s more to life than sailing and plundering.

Despite the multiple queer characters in the ensemble show, it’s meaningful to have the BlackBonnet ship sail. After all, Hollywood is no stranger to queer-baiting with “will they, won’t they” storylines with its lead characters. But the pirate romance is made explicit in “Our Flag Means Death” without tokenism.

Waititi, who holds executive producer and directing credits for multiple episodes in addition to playing Blackbeard, said in an Instagram post that the show is more than just a love story—it’s a love letter for those who are often forgotten.

“This is a show that was made about minorities TO minorities,” Waititi wrote in his post. “About people who didn’t fit in, to those who feel like outcast [sic], to those who still live their lives feeling like that.”

Rather than writing in queer characters for a straight audience with preachy messages, these characters simply exist. Their sexuality or gender is made known to the audience, but you come to care about their hopes, fears and flaws. Their queerness isn’t at the center of their value or only contribution to the show’s narrative.

Vico Ortiz, a nonbinary Latine actor, plays one of Bonnet’s crew members, Jim. When we first meet Jim, they are donning a fake beard and wax nose while on the run after murdering one of pirate queen Spanish Jackie’s (Leslie Jones) many husbands.

When Jim’s disguise is unveiled, the crew pesters them for answers. After incessant questions filled with ill-informed perceptions of women being bad luck on ships and man-splaining that women have demon-attracting crystals in their bodies, Jim tells the crew that they are still the same person with or without a disguise.

Jim is never explicitly referred to as nonbinary, but the show skillfully writes their identity in. When the crew asks Jim if they are a man or a woman, they respond that they aren’t sure if they are either. From that point on, other characters refer to Jim with they/them pronouns.

In an interview, Ortiz told Entertainment Weekly they cried when they first read the script because they didn’t have to ask for nonbinary representation. They added that there were three nonbinary writers in the writing room.

“So there’s this space in which this character is being nurtured and being taken care of. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, we’re going to hire a nonbinary actor to do this. And then they’ll fend for themselves.’ There was already this space that’s created that people already are vouching for this character and their storyline. It felt incredible,” Ortiz told Entertainment Weekly.

Despite Hollywood swashbucklers often portraying pirate storylines in a hyper-masculine, heteronormative light, queerness is documented in pirate history. According to an interview in Mashable, one of Jenkins’ favorite terms he learned while working on the show is “matelotage,” meaning a civil union between same-gender pirates. 

Texts describing gay relations such as historian B. R. Burg’s “Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean” use outdated language such as “sodomy,” implying relationships were more sexual than romantic.

“Our Flag Means Death” recognizes the homophobic language of its era, with one of its characters Calico Jack (Will Arnett) asking Bonnet if he and Blackbeard were “buggering” each other and following with, “Anything goes at sea.” But it challenges the notion that matelotage relations were only physical and existed due to homosocial environments like ships predominantly occupied by men. As season one concludes, Bonnet chooses Blackbeard after a short return to his abandoned wife and children.

“Our Flag Means Death,” writes queer people into history as a matter of fact. When diverse characters are on television, their stories often center around trauma from being marginalized. Here, there’s no grand coming-out story. When Jim reunites with their nan, they simply state they go by Jim these days. Their nan doesn’t reject or ask questions and immediately uses they/them pronouns. When Bonnet tells his wife that he met someone, she asks what her name is. He replies that his name is Ed, and his wife embraces him.

Though Bonnet’s adventures advance the storyline, it’s an ensemble show. The diverse characters don’t have to fight for screen time. Because of this, diversity isn’t an afterthought, and supporting characters are fleshed out.

People of color are portrayed as influential pirates, with their own character arcs. In the absence of Bonnet and Blackbeard, one of the crewmembers Oluwande (Samson Kayo) was voted by the crew to be their reluctant captain. A Black woman, Spanish Jackie, is revered as a powerful member and bar owner in the Republic of Pirates. 

The show doesn’t paint history with a color-blind brush, but it edits historical context to reduce needless harm. While Bonnet was a sugar cane plantation owner, his exploitation of slave labor isn’t shown on screen. He can come off as ignorant, like being surprised that his Indigenous captors of an island he crashed his ship on could speak English.

Racist lines like Bonnet’s assumptions are challenged by other characters. The scenarios are familiar and played off as a joke for audience members of color rather than at their expense. Characters give each other knowing looks when a racist remark or microaggression is stated, and the audience is invited to roll their eyes with the characters.

After two of Stede’s crew members of color, Oluwande and Frenchie (Joel Fry), encounter racist aristocrats at a party, they pretend to be royalty to scam them out of their money with the help of one of the servants. They then give their earnings to the servant to start a new life. 

Some scenes are unrealistic, but it’s refreshing to see queer and people of color triumph. Historical retellings and period pieces take creative liberties yet empowering representation is left out of history and fiction. “Our Flag Means Death,” asks, why shouldn’t we write ourselves in?





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