Sunday, November 19, 2017

November's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: BLACK SAILS

What’s to be done with the unwanted ones, 
the men who do not fit, 
whom civilization must prune from the vine 
to protect it’s sense of itself? 
Every culture since earliest antiquity 
has defined itself by the things it excludes. 
As long as there is progress, 
there will be human debris in its wake…
Sooner or later one must answer the question: 
what becomes of them? 
In London the solution is to call them criminals 
and throw them in a deep dark hole. 
I would argue that justice demands 
we do better than that; 
that a civilization is judged not by whom it excluded 
but how it treats the excluded. 
(...from Season Four, Episode 10) 

An unexpectedly original, ambitious, and close-up look at piracy during its heyday, BLACK SAILS (on demand at STARZ) is a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel “Treasure Island”. The series is set in early 1700’s Bahamas ahead of Stevenson’s yarn and winds down with the burial and abandonment of a fabulous cache on ‘Treasure Island’s mysterious Skeleton Island. Fictional characters from the novel mix with real pirates of history to make the colorful and mostly entertaining tale spun by co-creator’s Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine (l and r, below).

I emphasize ‘mostly’ because the show-runners did not get a grip on the story until season two. The project’s attachment to producer Michael Bay’s first TV project (he of Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and Transformers blockbuster riches) likely enticed STARZ to approve four seasons even though season one was a dud. (New Yorker critic David Denby called Bay “stunningly, almost viciously untalented”, to which Bay is reported to have replied: “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh dear, what a crime.”)

But never mind — Black Sails’ fanbase was rapturous and went beyond teenage boys. After season one, the writers developed a thought-provoking narrative surprising for an action series. Set in a pirate milieu we know most through myth and fable, we find the machinations of the colonial powers, the slave trade, and a community of maroons (slave escapees) who are hidden away from island civic life with lethal ways of staying hid, their own rituals and hierarchy.

There are plenty of invigorating ship battles, land skirmishes, personal conflict, and roiled forces of nature photographed so intimately you can feel the sea boil and the sun parch. But the action derives its thrills not from adventure but because you have become engrossed in the lives of the characters, acted by a terrific cast hailing from at least six countries.

The theme of Black Sails is a tug of war over Nassau between colonial Britain and rebel pirate desires for a haven of their own. The pirates hoped to make their new world not just an extension of the old but autonomous and free — pirate havens were early democracies before the great powers got around to them, organized to provide as much individual liberty and equality as possible. Here, their collective self-government grows into a collaboration between maroons and pirates, the former adding their numbers to throw at British and Spanish military who sought to quell slaves and hang pirates. One rides out this narrative knowing the rebels are doomed — the pirate heyday will last just a few decades, after which international piracy laws and military presence will end their golden era. 

The first season involves pirate pursuit of the Urca, a Spanish galleon carrying a vast treasure, adventure that deserved no more than a couple of episodes. The booty remains at issue among the Spanish, British, and pirates from series start to finish, eventually ending up on Skeleton Island, respectfully teed up to mesh seamlessly with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. One character, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), who fenced pirated goods and managed commerce in Nassau’s pirate haven, lurches between wanting Nassau to be self-governed, and coming to embrace new British Governor, Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts), first as his captive, as a means to this end (Ms New and Roberts are shown below).

Woodes Rogers was a (real) Brit who inherited his family shipping business, became a sea captain and was appointed Governor of the Bahamas twice, eventually establishing order, although (accurately) Black Sails leaves him bankrupt and defeated after his first stint on the job. His assignments as governor grew out of the rise of armies in Europe whose missions included stamping out piracy because it disrupted commerce and the slave trade.

The pirate response to colonial corruption led them to evolve their own self-management. (‘Every man has a vote in affairs of moment…’) Among them were refugees from persecution and sailors experienced in navel warfare seeking employment. According to Pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts (1682-1722), there are low wages and hard labour in an honest service, while the life of a pirate offers reward and liberty.

Among the pirates in Black Sails’ fictional world are Stevenson creations Long John Silver (Luke Arnold), Billy Bones (Tom Hopper) and Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), shown above, from left.

More major players were pirates who did exist such as Charles Vane (above, far r) created by the unexpectedly magnetic Zack McGowan. Vane was a protégé of Edward Teach — more famously known as Blackbeard (at right) played by Ray Stevenson.

Also real, was the dandyish, erudite Captain Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) who produced the famous skull and crossed swords flag and contemplates his legacy: “It’s the art that leaves the mark; it must transcend.” (Writer J. Steinberg comments: his piece of artwork will outlive him and all of us.)

Rackham’s brooding pirate lover, Anne Bonny (the very good Clara Paget) is shown below, with Vane and Rackham.

Flint, however, is the impresario, carrying this saga on his steely frame. Toby Stevens has the same upright bearing of his mother, Maggie Smith, in her portrayal of Violet, Countess of Grantham of Downton Abbey. Their show of determined obstinacy and resemblance is marked.

Flint owns Black Sails, yet is unknowable. Our interest in him, beyond observing his ferocity and genius for leadership, develops in season two when his backstory begins to unspool slowly in flashback culminating in episode 2.5. We see him in early career as affable young Lieutenant James McGraw, assigned in 1705 as naval liaison to the Hamiltons in London —the elder Hamilton an earl and son Thomas a member of Parliament, whose wife Miranda (Louise Barnes) is penetrating, wise, and lovely. Thomas Hamilton (Rupert Penry-Jones) wants to assemble a colony on Nassau, install an honest governor, and most notably, grant full pardons to the pirates — a scheme that is anathema to his father, the earl. (Below, from l, Miranda, Thomas Hamilton, James McGraw.)

McGraw slowly embraces the reform idea and comes to admire Thomas’s idealism. (Miranda says: you can recognize a great man by his relentless pursuit of a better world.) She knowingly seduces McGraw into an affair with both herself and her husband. The elder Hamilton gets wind of it, and uses their ‘disgrace’ to thwart the despised plan. Thomas is confined to an institution or dead; Miranda and McGraw are permitted to vanish. They go to Nassau where he morphs into his Ahab-like Captain Flint and they share a home when he’s not pirating.

We now see that Flint’s rage at being designated a non-person because of his love for a man has driven him headlong into a relentless career getting even with the establishment. McGraw’s naval mentor, Hennessy, when dismissing him from service, intones: “Every man has his flaws but not this, it is too profane.” Later Miranda insists he is ‘fighting to fight’ always in the midst of violence and danger to forget his shame over having loved Thomas.

Flint channels his remaining bits of humanity into a working relationship with John Silver, an ingenious fellow who loses his leg during the series (and gains the ‘Long’) but is more than Flint’s equal in getting his way. Together they become an unparalleled team and defeat Woodes Rogers at sea, ending his first governorship of Nassau. Silver orchestrates an agreement between the pirates and the maroons (he has fallen in love with the queenly Madi). And there’s an improbable series end for Flint, as Silver both drives him out of piracy and devises a heart-rending rescue for him (bottom image).

As the tale progresses, much relationship deepening and fracturing increases the series' addictiveness along with stunning sea action sequences and absorbing visits to Cuba (run by Spain) and several American colonies. We grow with Max, (Jessica Parker Kennedy, below) a beautiful, mixed-race prostitute who loves women and climbs her own ladder of power. Hannah New’s Eleanor Guthrie fares less well. This is New’s second major role, following the Spanish series “The Time In Between” (Netflix) in which, speaking fluent Spanish, she was lovely. Here, she has unconvincing ‘badass’ moments in which too many “f—k” swears make her less not more so. She is too much of a nurturer for this part. However the excellence of the ensemble as a whole and the increasing urgency of the story arc once underway does not leave the viewer wanting.

If adventure is your thing, thoughtful revelations about race, love, and power in the context of chaos and competition among players will be a bonus. If you normally shun the adventure genre, you will find much here to satisfy your need for deeper material once you slog through (or better, skip almost all) season one. The Flint/Silver relationship especially takes you into their power struggle, willingness to kill each other, and well of genuine caring that matures through the seasons. Black Sails was filmed in Cape Town, South Africa (on a set and with ships just repurposed by Outlander for its voyage to/in the Bahamas during the late 1760’s, debuting now on STARZ).

Each episode opens with a smashing musical theme by Bear McCreary (also the music director for Outlander) using the hurdy-gurdy to striking effect; it accompanies a spectacular series of computer-generated alabaster and bronze pirate sculptures inspired by Rodin, Bernini, and anonymous carvings found on ships, crypts, and gravestones in Baroque, Gothic, and Rococo style. Watch this.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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