On October 9th, director Joe Wright’s vision of a Neverland before Peter Pan opens in theaters. Will Pan do well at the box office? Will it be a critical success? I have no idea. I do know that even trying to adapt Peter Pan for today’s audience is an uphill battle.
There is currently quite a bit of controversy in the casting on Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, leader of the native Neverlanders. The director has been accused of whitewashing the role, but Peter Pan’s issues with racism began well before Wright had the happy thought of directing a movie about a boy who could fly.
Productions of Peter Pan, whether on screen or stage, have been struggling for years over the portrayal of Tiger Lily and Native Americans when adapting JM Barrie’s tale of pirates, kids with swords, and clock -eating alligators.
Actually, let’s correct that sentence and get to the heart of the issue: it’s a struggle over the portrayal of Red Indians in Neverland. I say that because there are no Native Americans in Peter Pan, and there never have been. Instead, as created by the author, there are growling red stereotypical caricatures that run around yelling HOW and refer to Peter as their ‘Great White Father.’ In fact, that was the original title for the play. There is no real Native American culture or pride on any page of this story, whether it be in a book, on stage, on TV, or in a movie.
Here’s some fun examples of the Red Indians of Neverland:
Yay! Aren’t those fun? And not only are those white people all dressed up in their best feathers, but they clearly have a woman playing a role that could have gone to a struggling white male teen. Since when was Peter Pan a woman in her thirties?!
Like, how do you even fix content like this? NBC actually hired a Chickasaw composer as a consultant for their recent live Peter Pan musical to make the songs less terrible. And before that, Spielberg’s Hook blended the Lost Boys and Natives together, and twisted the idea of ‘Neverland natives’ to mean ‘a bunch of orphans that landed here Lord of the Flies style and built a bunch of paint bomb launchers and bamboo armor and also a halfpipe for skating.’
In Hook, this group was led by Dante Basco’s Rufio, and anchored by a mix of races to push the idea that ‘Natives’ meant ‘natives of this weird area where ‘pretend food can be real if you pretend hard enough’ and not cringe inducing drum thumping guys that literally have the word ‘ninny’ in their tribe name.
I feel like this is the way to go, because even if you treated these tribal characters with respect, you’d still just be handing Native American the only thing they’re ever able to play. At this point I’m assuming that when anyone from the First Nation gets their SAG card, the union sends them a peace pipe so they can bring their own props to set.
I was talking with a buddy about Marvel movies the other day about the slippery slope of the Iron Fist series on Netflix. Iron Fist is a white guy in a world of Chinese culture that is the best at kung fu and being Chinese. Beyond being questionable, it’s just an exhausted trope at this point. But even if the decision was made to make Danny Rand a Chinese guy, congratulations: the first major Chinese super hero is a Kung Fu guy because of course he is.
The tribe in Peter Pan runs into the same problems. Any solution is going to be flawed, because the concept itself is super screwed up. The concept itself isn’t worth outraging over, because what are we arguing? That Native Americans have missed out on a major chance to play a version of them as the original author intended — as interpreted through the eyes of rich children from London? Are head dresses and warpaint the only thing, to use the Walt Disney Company’s own delightful lyrics, that make a Red Man red?
So in that light, maybe Spielberg’s solution of completely changing the concept of the characters was the right way to go. Maybe these gross old concepts ARE screwed up, and need to get tossed in the trash.
Joe Wright’s Pan seems to be taking the Hook approach, and while I will be the first to agree that, since his natives seem to be Team Rufio after taking ecstasy, he could have easily cast a woman of any color as his Tiger Lily, I do not think the controversy lies in whitewashing Native American characters.
Could a Native American actress have played Tiger Lily? Absolutely. Should Pan have some — ANY — people of color on a very white-person dominated movie poster? YUP. But should we really be holding up the Ugg-A-Wugg gang from Peter Pan as an example of quality roles being taken from Native American actors? Adam Sandler was rightfully taken to the woodshed over his portrayal of Native Americans during Billy Madison Longest Pee Pee Lunchlady Cowboys or whatever it’s called, and the tribe of ‘Red Men’ in Peter Pan aren’t much better.
And we deserve better. Actors and audience alike.
In a beautiful fantasy world full of mermaids and flying pirate ships, Blackbeard can be any color, and any gender. So can Captain Hook. Quite frankly, so can Peter. So why not, in this beautiful fantasy world, make the natives anything we want them to be, and forget the garbage race fantasies of a time when there was literally still a British Empire. Let’s quit raging that a Native American actor isn’t getting the opportunity to play a stereotypical Native American character.
Let’s get mad that they don’t get to play Peter Pan, instead.
Joe Starr is on Twitter, and is very aware he’s a straight white guy expressing opinions about race. As such, he’s very open to hearing your thoughts, opinions, counters, and corrections on the matter.