Pirates, Dreadlocks, and Captain Jack
Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow


Below is an excerpt from my paper that I will present tomorrow morning at the Caribbean Studies Association Conference in Curacao.

My paper today is concerned with Hollywood’s representation of the Caribbean in film, specifically films that feature a supernatural or fantastical element. These films include early efforts to render a haunted Caribbean such as White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, to more recent productions like The Serpent and the Rainbow and the Pirates of the Caribbean series.  In a region where literature, music and its own film production have been significantly influenced by Hollywood, where the eyes of the Caribbean voraciously consume an infinite number of moving images created outside of the region, how do the creators of these images that have in some ways transfixed the region’s gaze, gaze back at us?  This paper is part of a larger project that contemplates representations of the supernatural Caribbean and more precisely part of a book chapter that explores Hollywood’s representation of the Caribbean in films that feature a supernatural or fantastical element. While the completed chapter will probe a range of films, including crime thrillers, like 007 Live and Let Die and Marked for Death, both profusely garnished with Obeah and witchcraft, my paper today focuses on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Inspired by the Disney theme park ride after which the films are named, two of the films in this series, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, count among the top ten highest grossing movies of all time.[1] Directed by Gore Verbinski, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and starring Johnny Depp as the iconic Captain Jack Sparrow, this fantasy series catapults audiences into  Sparrow’ s 18th century world of magical adventure on the high seas of the Caribbean and beyond. The films, especially the second and third installments: Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, are the focus of this paper and are both steeped in the fantastic and feature, among numerous other mythical elements, a magical compass, a crew of monstrous  pirates, and a sorceress named Tia Dalma.

The series gestures towards its predecessors, early pirate films like The Black Pirate (1926), Captain Blood (1935), and The Buccaneer (1938), but with a wink and dandified nod that announces the series’ self-awareness and its pervasive mockery of the genre from which it derives. Of all the films’ elements, the one most irreverent to the genre and most amusing in its subterfuge is Depp’s portrayal of Sparrow. Both cowardly and brave, villainous and heroic, hyper-masculine and effeminate, Jack sashay’s through the series with heavily-lined eyes and the gait of a fashion model while dexterously wielding his sword and mercilessly dispatching his enemies.  Depp’s complex portrayal of Sparrow is further enunciated by his dreadlocks, which signal Sparrow’s marginalized position as part of a counter-culture but also invoke the racist anxieties spawned by dreadlocks and their association in the Hollywood imaginary with violence and lawessness.[2] Numerous aspects of Depp’s portrayal of Sparrow and indeed other subversive elements of the film were not authorized by Disney. Anne Peterson suggests that the series was “pirated,” its original aesthetic trajectory rerouted by not only Depp but the director and writers, whom she argues, insert “character ambiguity, a troubled story arc, anti-heroes, and off-color humor to the traditionally chaste Disney text” (70).  In an interview with Vanity Fair, Depp commented that the Disney establishment “couldn’t stand” his portrayal of Sparrow and that the then head of Disney, Michael Eisner, accused him of “ruining the movie.”[3]

Sparrow’s unruliness within and without the film bears an uncanny resemblance to the lawlessness associated with historical Caribbean piracy and an even more uncanny connection to the contemporary persona of Caribbean gangsters a.k.a. “rudeboys.”  In a 1978 speech during the famed One Love Peace Concert in Kingston, reggae artist Peter Tosh (formerly of the Wailers)  astutely commented upon the Caribbean’s lineage of violence. The concert was held to observe a peace treaty between warring political factions, and addressing the country’s political leaders, Tosh demystified the roots of the violence plaguing the nation:

[W]hen Columbus, Henry Morgan and Francis Drake come up, dey call dem pirate and put them in a  reading book and give us observation that we must look up and live the life and the principle of pirates. So the youth dem know fe fire dem guns like Henry Morgan same way.

Just as Tosh does in his commentary, the figure of Captain Jack Sparrow collapses piracy, in its historic context as a counterculture, into its descendant: the contemporary “rudeboy” (implied by Sparrow’s dreadlocks).  Sparrow’s complexity is further heightened because he simultaneously occupies the space of ancestor and offspring.

[2] In his essay “’Whether Beast or Human’: The Cultural Legacies of Dread, Locks, and Dystopia,” Kevin Frank suggests that the pirates in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are adorned with dreadlocks as a “way of suggesting the dehumanized and fearful lives they lead as cursed souls” (60). While I agree with Frank that Hollywood often invokes locks to infer deviance and is likely doing so in this case, I think that Sparrow’s locks simultaneously functions in tandem with other elements of his persona, like his stride and his gestures, to signal his iconoclastic status.

[3] “Johnny Depp Talks to Patti Smith About Working with Angelina Jolie, Jack Sparrow, and His Own Musical Aspirations.” November 30, 2010,