Know no shame: ‘Black Sails’ reclaims history, if only in fiction

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Beverly Pan/Staff

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There’s an ambitious television epic full of worldbuilding, action and drama — and it isn’t “Game of Thrones.” Presented as a backstory to “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson, “Black Sails” tells the story of the enigmatic Captain James Flint (brilliantly portrayed by Toby Stephens).

This is no children’s story though, as it depicts the pirates of history — vicious and violent as they fought against one of the most powerful empires in history. Death and betrayal riddle each episode, intercut with torrid affairs. The show also does what few other period dramas seem capable of or interested in: depicting LGBTQ+ people of the past.

Of the four main women on the show, three are queer. Eleanor (Hannah New) is the de facto ruler of Nassau. The relationship between the two other women, Anne Bonny (Clara Paget) and Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), is an honest portrayal of what it’s like to break away from sexual norms that are placed on us in youth, whether that youth occurred in the 18th or 21st century.

“Black Sails” goes on to reveal a number of queer relationships.

For a show that purports to disclose the background of James Flint, he remains shrouded in mystery for the first season. There are whispers that James Flint and Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes) had a scandalous affair in London. Just as “Black Sails” treads into the overdone grim dark spiral, they throw a wrench in the narrative. It was James and Thomas Hamilton (Rupert Penry-Jones) who were having the affair. When it comes out, Flint is discharged from the Navy and Thomas is forced into an asylum. Thus, the pirate James Flint is born.

LGBTQ+ representation in media is finally becoming trendy, but sticking a gay best friend into one episode is uninspired at best — it’s also boring, lazy writing. “Black Sails” reimagines representation in period dramas by making it integral to the show itself.

Flint’s internal struggle is not figuring out or discovering his sexuality – rather Flint’s character arc exists entirely because of his sexuality.

 

His sexuality is not a prop meant to bolster another more important character or storyline. James Flint would quite simply not exist if he had not fallen in love with another man. Indeed, few plots on the show would exist if not for the fact that various women fell in love with women and men with men.

The driving narrative of this show is the battle for Nassau, a battle waged because of Flint’s love for another man and because this love was taken from him.

Flint is seen as a monster by England — he is a vicious pirate, guilty of innumerable crimes. He was a monster to them before he did any of that, though — he is told his relationship with Thomas is too loathsome and profane to be forgiven, and he is cast out because of it. The trope of the predatory homosexual is deeply rooted in our society. Homoerotic undertones in supernatural fiction have long cast gay people as monsters. (You’re not imagining the homoeroticism in vampire stories.)

“Black Sails” takes this trope and attacks it. The show insists, rightfully so, that LGBTQ+ people have always existed, but it does not sugarcoat that existence. “They hang men for this,” Mrs. Hamilton tells Flint hours before their worlds all come crashing down, and she is right. Regardless of whether he’s a pirate or a respectable lieutenant, Flint will always be a monster to England, because of his sexuality.

In the third season, our crew is stranded on an island housing a matriarchal colony of marooned and escaped slaves. These people have formed a society entirely in secret. They exist outside the grasp of England’s fist because the crown does not know they exist.  

“Black Sails” is about people who have been cast out of society, it is about “monsters.” They are gay, women, marooned and escaped slaves. They don’t exist within civilization because civilization cannot allow them to exist. Their very presence challenges the entire façade, because civilization only survives if people cannot imagine it any other way.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the four-season show, Flint acknowledges this construct: “They paint the world full of shadows, and then tell their children to stay close to the light. Their light. Their reasons, their judgments. Because in the darkness, there be dragons. But it isn’t true. We can prove that it isn’t true. In the dark, there is discovery, there is possibility, there is freedom in the dark once someone has illuminated it.” The significance of an explicitly gay character making this declaration cannot be overstated.

For a shining moment, the show allows you to imagine a world in which this coalition of outcasts won. An alternate reality in which the New World was wrenched from England’s hands by an alliance of gay and black men and women. Of course, we know they did not win. Homophobia would become the law of the land in the New World, same as the Old. Slavery would flourish, and the world as we know it today would be built on the backs of enslaved peoples.

So what, then, is the point of “Black Sails”? It is just a story, with very little basis in history. Why imagine a world that could have been when we have to live in the one we have? Thinking of his happiness with his male love, author E.M. Forster once wrote “I see beyond my own happiness and intimacy, occasional glimpses of the happiness of thousands of others whose names I shall never hear, and I know that there is a great unrecorded history.”

“Black Sails” is imagining one of those thousands of unrecorded histories.

The show is an examination of the stories we create of, for and about ourselves. It is about how our narratives are wrested from us and twisted, and it is about how we fight to reclaim those narratives for ourselves. It is the lies we construct and the lies we are told, and the eternal struggle to maintain some truth in the midst of both.

The series closes with a character insisting that, “A story is true. A story is untrue. As time extends, it matters less and less. The stories we want to believe. … Those are the ones that survive, despite upheaval and transition, and progress. Those are the stories that shape history.”

We know from the beginning of the show that Flint’s war against England and civilization itself will not succeed. England’s power eventually waned, yes, but not before piracy was crushed and slavery was firmly entrenched. Homosexuality was still a criminal offense in my lifetime. Despite all of this, “Black Sails” is the power of stories we create in opposition to the stories civilization is built on. As long as we can tell those stories, we exist.

As long as we exist, we triumph.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].

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