Media representation matters.
I think—or at least hope—that we’ve all collectively reached a place now where that statement has just become a truism, rather than a battle that needs to be continuously fought and re-fought. Nevertheless, just in case we haven’t, I’m gonna go ahead and quote myself here real quick on why a greater diversity in media representation is unambiguously a Good Thing—even from my perspective as a member of the dominant cultural group of our time:
Just as the erosion of the patriarchy and traditional gender roles liberates men as well as women, so too does the opening up of the mirror that is the media to other perspectives benefit everyone. [As a white cishet male] I have spent my entire life surrounded by stories about people I could immediately and viscerally relate to, because they were populated by characters, by heroes, that looked like me. The sheer volume and variety of these stories meant that my youthful imagination could take me to a limitless number of places. I could become anyone, said the stories, and I—deep down inside—would believe it. Like it or not, when the brain is still developing, simple stimuli like similarity and familiarity are the ones that we respond to. If you grow up seeing representations of yourself achieving things, ambition and possibility become hardwired, instead of self-doubt and fear. Yes, there are vast and deep material structures in place that limit social mobility, but the control of representation remains a very powerful weapon in the arsenal of systemic oppression.
That sounds very high-minded, but the main thrust of that piece was actually me trying to appeal to the baser instincts of my demographic. I was trying to see things from the perspective of someone who may not necessarily be a part of the usual ‘progressive crowd’, and for whom appeals to equality and a better future for all might not resonate so strongly as for the rest of us.
Because media representation really is a full-spectrum sorta issue, and a greater diversity of it brings benefits all over the place. Putting aside all those vital, cultural, and political reasons for wanting a greater sweep of representation in storytelling, it’s also the case that to not broaden things is to risk monotony.
It’s fucking boring, in other words.
Because, honestly, seeing the same old stories told time and time again is getting reeeeeeeal old. Much the same way that schools teach us a whitewashed, Anglo-centric form of history, so does Hollywood—and the film and TV industry at large—seem to think that there are, like, what?, ten stories at most from history worth telling.
Or just one, to be honest. Churchill. It’s all Churchill. History is just Churchill innit.
Enough with the Churchills, yeah? We know what happens. Yadda-yadda-yadda, fight them on the beaches, yadda-yadda-yadda, cigar cigar cigar, yadda-yadda-yadda, skip over the enthusiastic engineering of a genocidal Indian famine, yadda-yadda-yadda, Oscars for all!
I’m so bored of hearing that—and stories like it—over, and over, and over again until I’m dizzy and my ears are ringing and I pray for sweet release from monolithic whiteness. I can’t even imagine how people who aren’t white must be suffering, having this ceaseless tide of mayonnaise forced down their throats.
So fuck the white histories for a little while, eh? I want a big budget, mainstream production of something else. Use that Hollywood money to tell me these stories instead…
Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali Ibn Nafi’, also known as Ziryab, was a Persian polymath who lived from 789-857 AD. This means he was doing his polymath thing like 700 years before that bearded Italian bloke that everyone always brings up when talking about polymaths. Not that anyone’s keeping score of course. Don’t worry, Leonardo, you’re both great! Ziryab was originally a slave, but in time he would become—deep breath—a musician, singer, poet, fashion designer, cosmetologist, meteorologist, botanist, astronomer, and geographer, among other things. The insanely gifted Ziryab was born in Baghdad, where he soon became a prominent musician and performer under the tutelage of renowned Persian musician and composer, Ishaq al-Mawsili. Ziryab would eventually leave Baghdad and travel to Córdoba on the southern Iberian Peninsula, then under Islamic rule, where he would become the court musician under the Emir who ruled there.
Though he was indeed a polymath who became adept at a wide variety of disciplines, it was music that would be Ziryab’s main passion. He is said to have taken the oud—a traditional instrument used in many cultures in the Middle East and North Africa—and to have innovated it by adding an extra set of strings. He is credited with creating and championing a unique style of musical performance, writing songs that would be woven into the fabric of Iberian heritage, in the process becoming a significant influence on Spanish music, as well as essentially the one man founder of Andalusian musical traditions in North Africa. On top of this Ziryab is often said to have invented the idea of the three course meal, as well introducing asparagus and other vegetables into the culinary mainstream. Ziryab also championed bathing twice daily. I could keep going for a long time, listing Ziryab’s innumerable achievements here—as well as the wealth of intrigue and diplomatic to-do that he lived through—but suffice it to say that in his life he was basically a one-man cultural tornado at the court of Islamic Cordoba, uprooting old traditions and setting them down in new and exciting ways, turning the region into a capital of style and taste. Surely that’s deserving of a sumptuous, well-cast biopic.
The House of Wisdom
Sticking with that wondrous era of thought and discovery that is the Islamic Golden Age, why not make an anthology-style historical epic about one of the greatest repositories of knowledge to ever exist: The Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom.
The House of Wisdom stood in Baghdad, the capital of the Muslim world and then-centre of unparalleled learning, from the 8th century until the 13th. It was built initially by Caliph Haround Al-Rasheed of the Abbasid Caliphate to serve as a library for the many books and manuscripts of various languages collected by his father and grandfather. Though housing an already considerable amount of materials in his time, it wouldn’t be until a few decades later that Haround Al-Rasheed’s son, Caliph Al-Ma’mun, would have to order construction works to expand the library into a full complex and academy so as to house the almost exponentially growing collection of knowledge struggling to be contained within its walls. It wouldn’t be just the complex’s size that grew. As the years went by and Al-Ma’mun saw the House flourishing he would add multiple study centres and even an observatory. In time the House of Wisdom would truly become the embodiment of its name, serving as a centre of translation—with Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Farsi, Syriac, Latin, and Green among the languages spoken and read there—as well as a place of study of mathematics, medicine, zoology, chemistry, astronomy, and much more.
Scholars from the breadth of the Islamic world and elsewhere—male and female, of various creeds and ethnicities—would flock to the House of Wisdom, working tirelessly there, translating, discussing, and transcripting. The House of Wisdom would serve as a major portal by which texts of many languages would be disseminated into Europe via the Islamic foothold in Spain, translated there by Islamic scholars into various European languages and bringing untold wisdom into the continent. Thus stood the House of Wisdom in ancient Baghdad, an unparalleled centre of learning, enriching the world through the cross-pollination of culture and knowledge.
Until the Mongols came. In 1528, Hulegn, grandson of Genghis Khan, sacked the city. For a week the Mongols pillaged and ravaged mercilessly, slaughtering the ruling Caliph and his family as well as thousands of Baghdad’s residents, and destroying the House of Wisdom in the process. It is said that the waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink of the countless books and manuscripts that the Mongols cast into the river during their plunder. In the course of a few days, centuries’ worth of knowledge was lost; Baghdad’s status as a world-renowned hub of progress and scholarship along with it. One of the great tragedies of the ancient world, the sack of Baghdad and the destruction of the House of Wisdom could make a poignant ending to this historical epic. Especially considering the last-minute drama that was the rescue of some 400,000 manuscripts from the House by renowned Islamic scholar Nasir al-Din Tusi, who transported them to another great centre of learning, Maragheh observatory in today’s Iran, not long before the Mongols entered the city.
Ching Shih was a pirate, and she has made some appearances in modern media. One of the pirate lords in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is based on her. A version of her also appears in a 2015 Hong Kong TV drama, Captain of Destiny, and there was a series called Red Flag set to be filmed a few years ago in Malaysia that was to adhere even closer to Ching Shih’s actual story.
Because what a story. Ching Shih was born Shi Yang in 1775 in China’s Guangdong province. She would work for a while as a Cantonese prostitute and madame of a small brothel before marrying an infamous pirate in 1801. Launching herself without hesitation into the pirate life, Ching Shih ‘participated fully in her husband’s piracy’ and she lived her life with the verve of someone who has ended up in a job that just, like, really resonates with their core being. When her husband died at the age of 39 in 1807, he left behind a meticulously constructed political entity of a pirate empire, a coalition of fleets that constituted one of the most powerful pirate forces in all of China, with over 300 ships and 20-40,000 pirates counted among its number.
Naturally, pretenders to the throne came out of the woodwork upon their captain’s death. Using an incredible amount of interpersonal savvy and political acumen, Ching Shih manoeuvred her way past all of them, gaining recognition as the rightful leader of what was by then known as the fearsome Red Flag fleet. Then she got to work, issuing a code of laws for her fleet that set out acceptable behaviour for her pirates, and mandated punishments for those who stepped out of line. Some could be seen as somewhat authoritarian, with on-the-spot beheadings being standard punishment for disobeying a superior. Others concerned themselves with the greater good: A forbidding of theft from any villages under the fleet’s dominion; a central fleet fund contributed to by all and used to pay for, for example, supplies for less advantaged ships, with punishment for withholding from the public fund ranging from whipping, to death. Pirates who raped female captives under Ching Shih’s rule suffered the death penalty. Pirates who deserted her fleet had their ears chopped off. Before long Ching Shih’s Red Flag fleet held sway over many coastal villages, often instituting a taxation system to fund their floating empire, growing ever larger and more powerful in the process. In 1808 the Chinese government sent a fleet after Ching Shih with the aim of destroying the pirate queen’s forces. Ching Shih not only repelled the attack, she took over all of the attacking boats and claimed them as her own. As a result the government had to resort to using fishing boats as their official vessels. Not content with riling up the Chinese, Ching Shih’s mega-fleet would also get into trouble with the British and Portuguese Empires.
Eventually, after a decade or so of terrorising the high seas, Ching Shih’s fleet would accept an amnesty from the Qing Government, and Ching Shih herself would marry the son of her dead pirate king husband (she adopted him as her son when she was first starting out as pirate queen and then had the adoption annulled before marrying him because obviously that makes it okay), who would give her two children before dying at sea. Ching Shih then moved back to her home town where she would open a gambling house and a brothel before dying eventually at the age of 69 while surrounded by her family.
Musa Keita I, or Mansa Musa, lived between 1280 and 1337. He was the ruler of the Malian Empire, then the most prolific producer of gold in the world, and as such he was—according to some estimates—the richest human being to have ever lived. Many captivating tales could be told about the Malian Empire—its size, its influence on West African language, laws, and culture—and the fascinating political movements that marked the succession of the Malian kings, but the story of Mansa Musa—and in particular his gold-lined pilgrimage to Mecca—might be the most striking of all.
Musa reigned over a vast amount of land, with his empire stretching over modern day Mali, Mauritania, The Gambia, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad. And, as previously stated, his was a reign drowning in gold. So he had a lot resources to play with. When people describe him as the richest person to have ever existed, they are not kidding. A report in Time Magazine once described him as ‘richer than anyone could describe,’ and said that there was ‘really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth.’ Being a devout Muslim, Musa felt compelled to make the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. In 1324 he would undertake this journey in truly spectacular fashion, putting the world on notice and alerting it to the presence of his cosmic wealth in the process.
For the nearly 4,000 miles voyage Musa would take with him an entourage that would be spoken of for centuries, making the journey to Mecca with a caravan that stretched as far as the eye could see. Tens of thousands of soldiers, servants, slaves, and civilians marched with Musa, alongside heralds draped in the finest silks, and scores of camels laden with hundreds of pounds of gold. But Musa didn’t just waltz through showing off. No, he kept busy. The Malian ruler would use the pilgrimage to acquire the territory of Gao (a historic centre of trade that sits in modern day Mali) and to build a mosque there. He would build mosques, libraries, and centres of learning in other places along the way too, helping Islamic scholarship to flourish in his path. He would leave evidence of his passing wherever he went, distributing gold along the way and encouraging communities to bloom. Sometimes, he could distribute a bit too much. Passing through Egypt, Musa gave away so much gold and purchased so many things with it that the commodity’s sudden overabundance caused its value to plummet in the Nile River Valley. It would take more than ten years for the area to recover from the hyperinflation caused by one man’s ludicrously opulent pilgrimage. This dazzling display would reverberate outwards along the ancient world’s corridors of rumour, with many European maps of Africa from the time revealing typical amounts of ignorance about the continent, apart from oft-repeated variations on a theme: A king-like figure, perched upon a throne, surrounded bu enormous wealth, bestowing gold. Musa’s golden pilgrimage to Mecca truly was an event like no other. To see it depicted on screen could be a feast for the senses.
Yasuke was a goddamn African samurai, okay? What more of a pitch do you need for a movie?
The beginnings of Yasuke’s story are not very well known. He is thought to have most likely been born sometime between 1555 and 1566, though there is reasonable doubt cast over even that. Various historians have posited that he originally hailed from then-Portuguese ruled Mozambique, or perhaps from Ethiopia or Angola. Not exactly geographical neighbours. Like I say: the details of Yasuke’s origins are not very clear.
What is clear is that in 1579 a boat of Italian Jesuit missionaries docked in Japan, and among the expected European-style crew there was one dark-skinned man who immediately made an impression on the local people. The man who would eventually be known as Yasuke was travelling as an attendant of the missionary Alessandro Valignano, who had been sent to the Far East to inspect the missions that had been established there. As part of this trip he would visit with the local daimyo, the legendary Lord Oda Nobunaga. The daimyo were the class of powerful Japanese feudal lords who ruled the country, one step beneath the almighty shogun, and Nobunaga is one of the most famous of them all, a seminal figure in Japanese history, famous for attempting—and succeeding to a degree—to unify the country during a 150-year period of near-constant strife and war, as well as for championing free trade and being a noted patron of the arts. Upon meeting Valignano, Nobunaga was mesmerised by his dark-skinned companion, who, standing six feet tall, towered above the at-the-time-average-five foot locals. At first Nobunaga did not believe Yasuke’s skin colour to be natural, and he ordered him to strip to the waist and to rub his skin. Seeing the veracity of Yasuke’s colour he became taken with him and quickly brought him into his service, making him his retainer and body guard. In short order Yasuke would gain national standing, word of his presence making its way around Japan as Nobuanaga travelled. Yasuke would learn Japanese, and become a fully fledged samurai in 1581, gaining so much prestige with Nobunaga that, in contravention of convention, the lord would have the samurai dine with him at his own table. He would also do him the honour of making him his sword bearer. Eventually, through a series of political intrigues and ritual suicides, Yasuke would be left master-less. Rather than following local custom and committing suicide along with his master, Yasuke offered his service to his successor. For this, he was shunned, and cast out. Thus would Yasuke the black samurai leave the service of the Japanese warlords and return to a quiet life with the Jesuits with whom he first arrived in the country.
One of the great emperors of India, Ashoka Maurya ruled from 268 to 232 BC. He was born the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya dynasty. Chandragupta came from humble origins but he would build one of the largest empires in Indian history. His grandson, Ashoka, would carry on this legacy, eventually using his reign to bring one of the most prosperous periods in the history of the subcontinent.
First came the blood. Though a grandson of noble heritage, Ashoka’s mother was from a lower caste and so Ashoka himself was assigned a lowly position within the royal ranks. Despite this Ashoka quickly proved himself a highly skilled warrior and knowledgeable scholar, gaining favour with his father as a result. Envious of their sibling’s prowess, Ashoka’s older brothers convinced their father to send Ashoka away, using the excuse of an uprising in another province and positioning Ashoka as the person who should travel there to put it down. Assuming they would likely never hear from Ashoka again, or that the uprising would keep him busy for some time at least, the brothers were shocked to hear that Ashoka’s mere arrival quelled the uprising without any blood being shed. Growing ever more jealous, they successfully conspired to convince their father to send Ashoka into exile. Eventually, another uprising in a different province prompted the emperor to recant, and to call back his son from exile, to help with the turmoil. Ashoka did so, but was injured in the process. Buddhist monks and nuns helped nurse Ashoka back to health, exposing the young prince to the faith for the first time.
Before long Ashoka’s father died, and a bloody struggle for power followed during which Ashoka slaughtered all of his brothers. Crowned emperor and nicknamed ‘Chanda’ (‘The Terrible’), Ashoka would wage a nearly decade-long expansion of his empire, spreading its borders at the cost of countless lives. But the seed of kindness that had been planted by the Buddhists who helped him when he was near death would soon take root. A small kingdom, Kalinga, initially resisted Ashoka’s expansionist march, and in 256 B.C. he unleashed his full wrath upon the province, personally taking charge of the assault. Kalinga would not hold out for long, and following a bloody battle during which the nearby river was said to turn red with the blood of the dead, Ashoka claimed another prize for his growing empire. But with this terrible prize, something had begun to change in him. Legend says that on the night following the battle, an old woman crossed the red river and asked to meet with Ashoka. He granted her an audience, and she simply told him: ‘You killed my two sons. My husband. My entire family. Now rule over the kingdom of the dead.’ With this devastating confrontation a remarkable change occurred in Ashoka. The blinkers fell from his eyes and he suddenly saw what he had wrought. With shocking alacrity the bloodthirsty ruler completely changed his ways, converting to Buddhism and dedicating himself to peace. Suddenly, Ashoka’s reign became marked not by expansionism and war, but by kindness. Following the teachings of the Buddha, he would forbid violence, pass the world’s first declaration of human rights, and even enshrine the rights of animals into law. Ashoka, now nicknamed ‘Maha’ (‘The Great’) would rule for another four decades, adopting the ideal that he ruled by the grace of his subjects, following the edict of non-violence and spreading prosperity throughout his kingdom.
War makes beasts of us all. World War II was the bloodiest conflict in human history. Yet even from this horrible monument to the inhumanity of our species, some stories of goodness can arise.
Nobuo Fujita was a fighter pilot for the Imperial Japanese navy during WWII. He was meant to carry out a recon mission for the attack on Pearl Harbour but as his plane did not work he remained stationed aboard a submarine that attacked vessels in U.S. shipping lanes at the time. During the War the Japanese navy developed special planes like Fujita’s that could launch from submarines, and that had enough range thanks to this to reach the mainland of the United States. One of the Navy’s plans, initially thought up by Fujita himself, was to outfit these planes with incendiary bombs, and to have their pilots drop these over the heavily wooded areas of the Pacific Northwest. In the early hours of September 25th, 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced silently off the coast of the border of Oregon and California. In the pre-dawn gloom, Nobuo Fujita and his co-pilot took off in a small plane loaded with 150kg of incendiary bombs. Gliding over the trees of Oregon, Fujita dropped two payloads. One landed in the forests near Mount Emily, due East of the town of Brookings, and Fujita’s mission to start a destructive conflagration seemed complete. Luckily, heavy rainfall the night before meant that the forests were damp enough that the fire could not grow to uncontrollable size, and the Forest Service soon tamed the blaze. Fujita’s plane was heard by many residents of Brookings, and it was understood that a Japanese plane had managed to carry out the only bombings of the mainland of the United States during the entire war.
Despite a counterattack by the U.S., Fujita managed another bombing sortie a few days later, but this too caused only minor damage. Eventually, Fujita would return to his duties as a reconnaissance pilot before being transferred to training kamikaze pilots. After the war Fujita retired to a quiet life and opened a hardware store in Japan. His actions during the conflict were not forgotten however, and in 1962 the town of Brookings invited Fujita to visit. Fujita accepted the invitation, and he took with him his family heirloom, a 400-year old katana. Deeply ashamed of his past, Fujita arrived in Brookings ready to commit ritual suicide (‘seppuku’) with his family’s ancient sword as atonement for his sins if that is what the townspeople demanded. The people of Brookings did not see things this way. Instead they welcomed him with open arms, ready to forgive the past. Deeply touched by their reception, Fujita gifted his family’s priceless sword to the town, and he vowed to atone in any way he could. He promised to invite students from Brookings to Japan for cultural visits, and he worked his fingers to the bone to make this happen. Through economic hardship back home he never forgot his promise, saving most of what he made, eventually keeping his word and managing to get three female students from a Brookings school over to visit his country. Fujita would visit Brookings several times over the course of the following decades, planting a tree at the site of his bombing so many years before as a symbolic gesture of peace and remorse. He would also help to raise funds for a new library, the largest in Oregon, where his family’s katana would be moved to for display. A few days before his death at the age of 85 Nobuo Fujita was made an honorary citizen of the town that he had intended to destroy. His daughter would visit a year or so after his death to bury some of his ashes at the site where his bomb landed. An entry from Fujita’s diary read:
If we knew each other. If we understood each other as a friend. This foolish war would never have happened. I sincerely hope that a day would come where everyone could overcome their differences through talking and not fighting.
So, yeah. Maybe instead of the next Churchill biopic probably already in the works, how about giving us a movie about one of those stories? Just don’t even think about casting Christian Bale or Sam Worthingzzz…
diversity vs representation pic.twitter.com/HmgoQQUZtl— Riz Ahmed (@rizmc) October 7, 2018
(Header photo: Mansa Musa on his pilgrimage to Mecca with an entourage of 60,000, 1324, courtesy of Getty Images)
Header Image Source: Getty Images