(The bottom of that page has a list of 50 Native films you must see…check it out.)
Disney Refines Its Cultural Competence in Moana, But Bigger Questions Remain
To this I say, carry on. It will be a long journey to go from the assumptions outsiders made abut Indigenous cultures in the 17th and 18th centuries to a world like Star Trek’s where diversity is simply understood as The First Law of Nature.
So, here’s where I should explain I’m a middle aged white chick of German American extraction, (“Pennsylvania Dutch”), with an interest in Indigenous cultures and a wish to be an ally, not a hindrance.
I also commit art and writing, so the storytelling aspect of this is important to me.
Someone once told me, “you can really only tell stories about a white girl from Dover…”
Um, no. Lemme ‘splain something here…
Writers, storytellers, artists etc have…
- imagination: actors don’t act out only what they’ve experienced (oh sure, all those folks in Fury Road have lived through the Apocalypse, Jemaine Clement has been a giant shiny crab, Alan Tudyk has been a chicken, and Dwayne Johnson IS a demi-god…also Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans and Chris Pratt… what is it with the Chrisses?). Artists and writers use reference, research, listen to others’ stories, and then use imagination to put themselves in those characters’ places.
- creativity: see above. You understand reality, then bend it like fence wire to make a point.
- artistic license: you’re an artist, you create, no one can stop you, bwa haaa haaaaaaaa!
- freedom of speech: unless you live in The Evil Empire, you get to say what you think. It helps if you fact check, do your research, use your brain and listen to others’ stories… then you don’t end up with Twicrap or Fifty Shades of Mysogynistic Evil.
DID I MENTION DOING YOUR RESEARCH?
OK. So here we are trying to tell stories about folks who have different experiences than us. On a very deep level, we are all The Human Race, with the same archetypal images floating around in our collective unconscious.
Whatever story you tell, someone will love it, someone will hate it, for whatever reasons, sometimes just because it’s not their flavor (I personally can’t stand Picasso), or sometimes because they’re so elitist they think they’re smarter than everyone else and if it’s popular they hate it, you know, because. Popular.
Disney’s Moana has stirred the pot since anyone got wind of it. Folks of Polynesian ancestry leapt forth with everything from “I hope they get this right” to “it’s my ball and you can’t play with it!”. The above article neatly dissects what worked and what didn’t for that particular author, and what issues remain for those of us trying to help tell stories about folks with different experiences, culturally and historically. There are some fine questions raised…
What does it mean for mega-corporations like Disney to make films based on Indigenous cultures, for which they will reap hundreds of millions of dollars in profits? What’s in it for those peoples whose cultures are exploited? Does Moana follow a larger pattern of romanticizing island peoples at the expense of ignoring their current sociopolitical realities? To what degree does the choice to focus on a fictionalized ancient past contribute to the ongoing erasure of Indigenous peoples in the face of dominant, assimilative societies?
I don’t think it romanticizes at the expense of ignoring present issues. This is not Whale Rider, or Smoke Signals, or Powwow Highway, which did address present issues, while drawing us “outsiders” into well told stories with unforgettable characters. This is a Disney film with a specific Disney style, one I grew up loving. It also shows a healthy population in a healthy environment in a fairly peaceful place (until the Great Danger causes the Hero to set out on the Adventure). It shows enough of daily life to make us identify with the people on both the fleet of boats and in the village.
Can Disney remain iconic Disney while moving into the 21st century and becoming a storyteller who broadens their scope, tells diverse stories with truth at the core?
Yeah, why not.
Moana was a terrific attempt and it won’t please everyone. But it is a long tack in the right direction.
For those of you who feel your story is not being told… whether because of culture, race, gender identity or whatever…if someone is trying to tell your story, you need to grab them by the ear and make sure they get it right.
I’m sure there were many moments like this one during the making of Moana…
Musician and leader of Te Vaka Opetaia Foa’i had to stand up and put his foot down a few times…
Foa’i has spent the better part of 20 years travelling and learning from elders to get a grasp of the culture, so “I know it might be a bit arrogant but … I felt like I’d done my homework and … understood what was culturally right and what wasn’t”.
“I put my foot down and said no way. This thing here, you’ve got to treat it with respect, it describes the mana that the ancestors had, the confidence they had in voyaging these waters, their pride in finding their direction and knowing where they wanted to go,” the musician says.
PS, check out Te vaka’s website, they are just awesome!