Opinion: These 18th-century pirates have a lesson for American politicians

HBO’s swashbuckling comedy “Our Flag Means Death” has turned out to be the sleeper hit of the spring — and a resounding clap back at the current wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation sweeping multiple states, from the Florida measure opponents have dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill to efforts in Texas and elsewhere to bar transgender youth from receiving gender-affirming care or trans athletes from competition. (HBO and CNN share a parent company.)

This big-hearted series, which debuted in March, took viewers by surprise with a slow-burn romance between “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and the notorious Blackbeard (Taika Waititi, who executive produced).

Their odd-couple relationship is only one of several queer storylines on creator David Jenkins’ show, which also features the nonbinary pirate Jim (Vico Ortiz, a nonbinary actor) paired with fellow marauder Oluwande (Samson Kayo), and a budding relationship between pirates Black Pete (Matthew Maher) and Lucius (Nathan Foade). The show even dips into polyandry, with comic Leslie Jones playing a pirate named Spanish Jackie who has 19 husbands.

The plot springboards off the true story of Bonnet, a British landowner who turned to piracy for a couple of years in the early 1700s and did team up briefly with Blackbeard. But from there, it’s all invention. “David just wants to piss off homophobic historians. He just wants to hear them go, ‘That never happened!'” Waititi told Entertainment Weekly.
Per Waititi’s now well-established brand, the show lives comfortably in the realm of goofy, quippy humor shot through with moments of heart-wrenching feeling. “To American ears, I would call the New Zealand accent the sound of kindness,” the American Jenkins said of his Kiwi stars.
The show is a popular and critical success. Which begs the question: Why on Earth hasn’t HBO renewed it? (Here’s hoping that by the time you’re reading this, it has.) The series finale aired weeks ago. Usually, renewal is announced by now.
“It’s a rough one to not pick up on after what happened at the end of it. It’s a particularly rough one. I hope they figure it out. I hope they want to do more. I know everyone in the show wants to,” Jenkins told the LA Times. “I just think that they should because it makes sense. Also, I need to know what happens next,” Waititi chimed in.
Will Arnett, Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi in "Our Flag Means Death."
Fans are certainly making their feelings known. “It’s easy to tell when a movie, show, or game has really found a passionate audience, because the fan art suddenly starts trending on social media,” said Tasha Robinson on Polygon. And you know a series has really succeeded as an ensemble when fan art reflects love for all the characters, not just the two in the show’s central romance.

Even Izzy Hands (Con O’Neill), Blackbeard’s seething second-in-command, makes frequent appearances in the flood of gorgeous fan-fiction art online.

Ortiz has become a bona fide nonbinary celebrity via the show, and recently announced their decision to get top surgery was influenced by the amount of love they’ve received from fans. “It’s been so cool to see that the show is being this tool for people to feel empowered,” they told Out magazine. “It’s been really beautiful.” On “OFMD,” Jim’s fellow pirates refer to Jim with they/them pronouns, without ever remarking on it — a radical act in itself.
Part of the reason the series is resonating so strongly with viewers is its dedication to honestly depicting relationships between queer characters, as opposed to “queerbaiting,” the term for implying queer romance will occur on a show and then never actually letting it happen. “OFMD” also never suggests that queer relationships are in any way unusual. “What I love about the show is that none of the characters talk about being gay. It’s never treated like, “Oh my God, it’s two men,” Waititi said.
Vico Ortiz and Samson Kayo in "Our Flag Means Death."
Unapologetically inclusive storytelling, and casting of BIPOC actors, have become a trademark for Waititi, whose upcoming “Thor: Love and Thunder” looks likely to queer the Marvel universe. The movie’s trailer features a scene between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) that got fans excited.
Tessa Thompson’s openly bisexual character, Valkyrie, is now the King of Asgard and, reportedly, looking for her queen. And Waititi himself will reprise his role as the character Korg, who is reportedly “canonically gay” (though he won’t have a love interest).
Waititi has also been a groundbreaker in Indigenous-inclusive storytelling, from his brilliant Native American “Reservation Dogs” series on Hulu to his casting of Indigenous Australian and Maori actors in “Thor: Ragnarok” and his earlier film, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” as well as the highly diverse cast of “Our Flag Means Death.”

“OFMD” would be cause for celebration in any era, but it feels particularly necessary right now. It’s hard to believe the show exists in the same universe in which Florida prohibited teachers from in any way mentioning gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through the third grade.

It’s only one in a slew of anti-LGBTQ bills across the United States. Per the ACLU, “over 100 bills attacking transgender people have been introduced in state legislatures since 2020.”

Regrettably, a TV series — even a boldly pro-LGBTQ one — isn’t equipped to take down legions of small-minded politicians and deep-seated bigotry. But perhaps its value lies in Blackbeard’s words of comfort to Stede in their hour of crisis: “There’s always an escape.”

Quoted from Various Sources

Published for: The Bloggers Briefing