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(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONĀteaApril 20, 2021

Vegas keeps the Māori warrior-gangster trope alive for another generation

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

A new TVNZ drama tells the story of a fictitious gang trying to go straight. Despite being  part of a major initiative to get Māori stories to screen, Vegas reinforces some centuries-old stereotypes, writes Leonie Hayden.

Episode one of the new drama Vegas aired last night on TVNZ. It’s a production being celebrated as a groundbreaking collaboration between Pākehā and Māori production houses, to give power back to Māori when it comes to the telling of our stories.

Filmed in Rotorua and with an almost entirely Māori cast, Vegas is a crime thriller about a gang leader trying to “free his people from the curse of methamphetamine”. After one last job, with one final outsized pay day, the gang can quit the meth-cooking business once and for all and use the money to buy back ancestral land, where they will live mō āke tonu as their ancestors intended. As you’d expect, things don’t go to plan.

I’ve watched the first two episodes of Vegas, and the hard work and expertise from an extraordinary number of Māori creatives is clear. I saw the dedication etched across every frame; attention to detail in wardrobe, photography and camera technique; excellent world-building thanks to powerful performances by on-camera talent.

Unfortunately, Vegas still feels like a story about Māori told through a Pākehā lens. Of its 18 credited key creatives, 12 are tangata whenua – including some of our best and brightest, like The Legend of Baron To’a director Kiel McNaughton, and the team behind the excellent short film Tits On a Bull, Tim Worrall, Piripi Curtis and Lara Northcroft. Te Arawa writer and director Michael Bennett is the writer, executive producer and co-creator (read his response here) whose 10000 Company developed the script. The series is based on a book by Ray Berard, a Pākehā Canadian, produced by an Australian-owned company with almost all Pākehā senior staff.

The fictional Te Toki gang haka at the tangihanga of their recently deceased leader. (Image: Vegas, TVNZ)

On the basis of what I’ve watched, and after speaking with several people involved in the production, I would invite you to consider a very simple thought experiment: if you put those 12 talented Māori creatives in a room and told them, “Here’s $6m, you can make anything you want. What will you do with it?” I doubt the answer would be “Another production about Māori and gangs”.

Those people told me there were days that they would feel physically sick in their stomachs about the subject matter.

Despite its aspirations, Vegas still links images of our men, our language, our haka, even our kaitiakitanga, to criminality, hyper-masculinity and violence.

Audiences will lap up a gang narrative in whatever form you care to present it: Once Were Warriors, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, Crooked Earth, Dark Horse, Broken, Savage, even Boy, although Taika Waititi managed to subvert the trope to create a uniquely Māori comedy. In 2021, it looks like more of the same but with a bonus redemption arc – these gangsters kōrero Māori and they’re trying to go straight. Beth Heke also ultimately found redemption in her reclamation of whakapapa in the final scenes of Once Were Warriors, yet thanks to that film’s modest international success, it helped to entrench a perception of us as a culture enslaved by alcoholism and domestic violence. When Dr Leonie Pihama wrote of Once Were Warriors in 1996, “It is a production that has contributed significantly to highlighting the immense creativity, talent and ability within the Māori community… However, in terms of Māori representation to the world, its political and cultural implications are disturbing” she could just have easily been talking about Vegas.

So who is being redeemed? Making the existence of gangs more palatable to audiences, all while stripping them of their real world context – the pipeline from abusive state care institutions, the punitive prison sentences that push men towards those communities – feels cynical.

Academic Moana Jackson talked about the fallacy of the “warrior gene” 11 years ago in his seminal talk, Once Were Gardeners. He called it “a scientific and cultural lie” based on the failure of Sir Walter Raleigh to find El Dorado, the mythical city of gold.

El Dorado’s existence was itself a lie made up by Christopher Columbus, and Raleigh was hoodwinked into going off in search of it. He then defended his failure to find it at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, on pain of death, saying “the land was occupied by a savage warrior race who kill and eat anyone not like them”.

“From that one simple lie to justify a failure, came the notion that all indigenous peoples were warrior races,” says Jackson. Later in 1830, he says, one of the earliest English writers to put pen to paper about Māori, a man who had never travelled here, wrote: “the land is inhabited by a savage, bloody warrior race with vengeance and war as the precious lifeblood of an ancestor, bequeathed from savage father to savage son.”

The gritty social realism of Once Were Warriors (1994) made stars out of Lee Tamahori, Rena Owen, Cliff Curtis and Temuera Morrison. It also helped to embed the perception of Māori as violent and desperate (Image: Communicado Productions)

Since then, the notion of Māori as a savage, warrior race has continued to impact on everything from the theft of our lands and legislation banning our traditional practices, to Māori boys and men being profiled by police, to Don Brash making the assertion that “haka glorifies domestic violence”, to the reflection of ourselves in popular culture.

Māori men are no more or less violent than all other men, which is to say, most are not. The pre-colonial inter-hapū warring, and the defence of our lands against the British, is consistent with expressions of war in all other cultures, and arguably a more honourable tradition than tanks, atomic weapons and drone strikes (and yes, I include the eating of one’s enemies in that). Prowess on the battlefield was just one of many skills valued by our ancestors.

“A clear and actually objective analysis of our society,” Jackson concluded, “would have shown that the book could more properly have been called Once Were Gardeners, Once Were Poets, Once Were Singers…”

By my count, prior to Vegas, 14 scripted film and television productions had been made that feature Māori gang members as prominent characters. Excluding Shortland Street, for which director and producer credits are hard to identify, the remaining 13 productions had a total of 41 key creatives attached. Of those, 26 have been non-Māori, or roughly 64%. Only one – Boy – had an all-Māori key creative team. Four had entirely Pākehā key creative teams. Five of the films appear on the top 20 list of our highest grossing films at the box office.

Elsewhere, pre- and early-colonial era Māori men in films like Utu, The Piano and The Deadlands (three films that have one Māori key creative between them) are also either violent and vengeful, or clueless and unsophisticated. The rule seems to be prior to 1960 you’re a savage with a taiaha or a musket; after 1960 you’re a savage with a leather vest and a patch.

I’m not saying these productions are without nuance or craft – I’ve named some of my favourite films, and we are blessed with a screen industry that consistently punches above its weight on the world stage. But on the issue of representation alone, what does all of this tell you about how New Zealand sees us, or worse, wishes to see us? Is it pure titillation – or do our Treaty partners actually believe the majority of Māori are either gangsters or lovable dum-dums?

It’s not just our men who have continued to be portrayed in ways that don’t take in the richness and diversity of our culture and peoples. Thirty years on from “cook your own fucking eggs”, the women of Vegas are incredibly impressive, but still the staunch-but-put-upon archetype we’ve come to expect, with identities that are defined by the men in their lives.

The success of the film Cousins (in financial terms and cultural impact) – written, directed and produced by all Māori women – shows us not only what riches lie beyond the mystic kuia, the stoic mother and the abused wife, but how mana Māori behind the scenes creates the kind of space that filmmaking pioneers Merata Mita and Barry Barclay had hoped for us all those years ago. Greater than what they dreamed even. In Barclay’s 2003 essay ‘Celebrating Fourth Cinema’, he imagined only a “loyal festival following” for Indigenous film. “Very small but significant.” Cousins was recently added to the top 20 films at the New Zealand box office, despite opening amidst a Covid-19 lockdown in our largest city. Based on Patricia Grace’s novel of the same name, the film follows three women at three ages, whose stories are woven together by whakapapa. It treats our women and men with a kindness and mana I had never seen before on screen (hands up who else thought Mata’s husband was going to hit her! Hands up who felt ashamed of themselves when he didn’t!), and shows us the faces of not three but nine wāhine – for what are we if not different people in every season of our lives?

Who else can we imagine onto our screens? Professors? Stressed out public servants? Romantic leads? A takatāpui sculptor with an addiction to McDonald’s ketchup packets? The anti-heroine of Keri Hulme’s Bone People? Tennis legend Ruia Morrison?

After extensive conversations with people working elsewhere in the sector, I now know this much: the Māori screen industry is crying out for more. More power; more funding; but most crucially, more trust. The racism and paternalism experienced by Māori women in particular at the hands of Pākehā productions companies would make you scream, if those individuals were even able to make those experiences public.

None I spoke to would consent to their names being used, even being quoted. Of course they can’t if they wish to keep working in a project-based industry which runs contract-to-contract. And so the same story was told to me many times on condition of anonymity: wahine with extensive CVs are paired with a “more experienced” writer, director or producer, or passed over completely due to a lack of experience, while the next up-and-coming young Pākehā director with one short film credit is handed the reins of a feature film.

Worse still, they are being exploited for funding applications. I recently interviewed a producer who told me that just weeks prior to a 2020 Film Commission funding deadline, she was contacted by four different productions to ask if they could add her name to their Rautaki Māori proposal, which requires at least two out of three creatives to be Māori. One, a production that had been in development for years, told her: “You wouldn’t have to do much.” The space they were willing to give her was only the size of the tick box on the application.

Surely it’s time for screen professionals to ask themselves – why do you want to tell this story? Is this your story to tell? Even if there are Māori taking part, if the one Pākehā key creative is the producer, the person who holds ultimate power, the one who decides which story is being told, and who by, is there power for Māori? Where is the rangatiratanga?

Perhaps it’s not enough anymore to say “nothing about us, without us”.  Maybe we should be demanding “nothing about us if you ain’t us”.

Vegas isn’t the cause of any of these problems. It’s more the symptom of a virus that has resisted medicine and mutated into a more sophisticated, harder to treat strain. At the end of the day it’s an entertaining action series with some great performances in it, and if as an audience member that’s all you need it to be, kaore he raru. But when you truly give the power to Māori storytellers, the “deficit” narrative seems to magically disappear and we see ourselves as we are, and as we wish to be.

Let Māori dream themselves, as they truly are, onto our screens.

Update April 21: The Spinoff accepts that the original essay diminished the authorship of Michael Bennett (Te Arawa) whose 10000 Company was engaged at the outset by Greenstone TV to adapt the book Inside the Black Horse and develop the script for Vegas. His role was writer, creator and executive producer. 

An earlier version of this article stated the series was funded as part of NZ On Air’s Te Rautaki Māori strategy. It was funded by NZ On Air, but not as part of Te Rautaki Māori. We apologise for the error.

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