Our Flag Means Death; Bringing Modernity to Piracy

Our Flag Means Death; Bringing Modernity to Piracy

Stevie D. Rosenfeld, Author

     Taika Waititi is a director most widely known for casting himself in films; Thor Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit being some of the most recent and popular. However, Waititi is and should be credited for the diversity he creates within his work. Taika Waititi uses his talent for filmmaking and acting to create media that is fun for the viewer, especially those who do not often get to see themselves represented on screen. Waititi did not shy away from racially diverse casting in Suicide Squad, leaned into the different sexualities displayed in the Thor comics while filming Ragnarok, and made an incredibly accurate and nuanced portrayal of life in the Holocaust with Jojo Rabbit. David Jenkins is a lesser-known writer who created TBS’ People of Earth, a comedy about a support group for victims of alien abductions. Jenkins is also not afraid of diversity. His newest creation, made with Taikia Waititi, is HBO Max series Our Flag Means Death, which is possibly the epitome of Waititi’s and Jenkins’ artistic endeavors and a truly beautiful and diverse show.

     Our Flag Means Death was originally created by writer David Jenkins, who pitched the idea to Waititi. He very quickly joined on as a producer, director, and a leading actor. The show follows the life of Stede Bonnet, the Gentlemen Pirate. Stede Bonnet was a real person, but the stories told about him in the show are completely fictional and intended to poke fun at the reality of pirate life while still enjoying the romantic fantasy.

     Rather than accurately retelling the lives of Stede Bonnet and his crew, Our Flag Means Death is about an eclectic crew of pirates whose skills range from being an assassin to a tailor, master criminals to writers, life-long sailors to short-term cooks. The members of this crew are just as diverse as their jobs. With race-blind casting, Bonnet’s crew is made up of people of dozens of ethnicities from across the world, and Waititi even cast himself as Blackbeard. Writer David Jenkins was clever about implementing this within his show. At several points, the racism that black characters would face during the time period is acknowledged, but it is not a central point of the show and is never the reason characters cannot achieve their goals. In fact, many of the characters mock and poke fun at the ignorance of upper-crust white society at the time. 

     In addition to racial diversity, Waititi and Jenkins’ show also offers a commentary on gender equality. Before Stede became a pirate, he lived with his wife Mary Bonnet; each of them forced on the other in an arranged marriage. The show depicts Stede being miserable in domestic life, but does not blame Mary. A lesser series would blame a woman for her husband’s suffering, but Our Flag Means Death demonstrates how miserable Mary was as well. Rather than blaming one of the victims for their awful marriage, Our Flag Means Death blames the society in which women and men are forced to marry against their wishes. This is elaborated on as Mary finds independence and her own career while Stede is away, and Stede finds true love while away from Mary. 

      One of Our Flag Means Death’s leading characters is Jim Jimenez, a non-binary, sea-faring, killing machine. Jim’s actor, Vico Ortiz, told Entertainment Weekly about when they first read the script. “I cried,” they said, “I was like ‘I can’t believe that I’m not even asking for this to be a thing.’” They felt extremely comfortable performing because of the three non-binary writers working on the series with Jenkins. In many scenarios, non-binary characters are written inaccurately by cis writers, and non-binary actors are left to “fend for themselves” as Ortiz puts it. But Ortiz and fans loved Jim’s character because “There was already this space that’s created that people already are vouching for this character and their storyline.”

David Jenkins noted that when he was first writing the show, he pitched it as a “rom-com essentially,” and that is what it definitely is. The show follows several different kinds of love; two pirates who found each other aboard Stede’s ship, Jim deciding between their true love and their mission, Mary Bonnet’s affair with her painting instructor, and the growing romance between Stede and Captain Blackbeard. As explained earlier, Our Flag Means Death is not an accurate retelling of the Gentleman Pirate’s life, but instead a more fun version of it. The reason for creating the show was not to document the lives of pirates, Jenkins believes “Stede and Blackbeard’s relationship is the reason to make the show,” even if it isn’t historically accurate. Taika Waititi joked that “David just wants to piss off homophobic historians. He just wants to hear them go, ‘That never happened!” Our Flag Means Death is just good and pure fun; the characters tell jokes about modern and historical problems, they make fun of each other, they are slapstick fools who are on screen just to have a good time. Judgy viewers or history buffs with high standards are not a consideration in the writing of this show. The only opinions that mattered were what Waititi and Jenkins thought made good television, and they did.

     Our Flag Means Death is a comedy, which means it isn’t full of drama, it isn’t heart-wrenching,  and it is perfectly acceptable to scroll through your phone while watching it. But what makes the series so incredible is that it is a good show; a plain and simple, truly good show. Many people claim that creating diverse movies or television is difficult because it appears “preachy” or “pigeon-holed,” but Waititi has made it abundantly clear that having a diverse cast of characters only makes media more fun and exciting. The fact that  Our Flag Means Death is such an entertaining series while being diverse proves all of those people wrong. Diversity doesn’t make for bad television, bad writing and production do. And no one could ever accuse Taika Waititi and David Jenkins of being bad at their jobs.