Editorial: Black Sails, Historical Accuracy, and the Pirate Genre in Hollywood

To the left, the N.C. Wyeth 1911 illustration of Long John Silver from Treasure Island. To the right, Luke Arnold portraying a young John Silver in season 2 of Black Sails in 2015.

To the left, the N.C. Wyeth 1911 illustration of Long John Silver from Treasure Island. To the right, Luke Arnold portraying a young John Silver in season 2 of Black Sails in 2015.

Caution to those who have not seen all of Black Sails up to March 26, 2016 and wish not to spoil their first viewings – there are discussions that occasionally spoil small plot points from the show.  Also, this editorial and review covers the show’s first three seasons

“…Set in and around a historically accurate time and place, in Nassau in the Bahamas…”

– Jonathan E. Steinberg, Executive Producer/Co-Creator of Black Sails

“It’s brutal, it’s gritty, and it’s real…”

– Hannah New, role of Eleanor Guthrie in Black Sails

“It’s not the cheesy pirate thing, it’s not fantasy, it’s trying to actually portray how life could have been in the Golden Age of Piracy.”

– Clara Paget, role of Anne Bonny in Black Sails

On January 18, 2014, Starz released the first episode of their new show, Black Sails, on Youtube, in partnership with the entertainment network Machinima, a week before it officially aired on Starz’s premium American cable television channel.  This early preview included a ten-minute featurette about their new show and presented the previous three quotes.  Other promotional videos for the show featured similar claims about accuracy.  Two years after the premiere, the show continues to promote itself as “realistic”.  One claim they repeated involved avoiding the most common clichés in pirate films such as parrots, eye patches, and Robert Newton’s pirate accent.  So far, Black Sails avoided these obvious pirate stereotypes.  They did not perpetuate the most blatant tropes of pirates, but Black Sails still repeats many other tropes from the past century of film and television, resulting in many historical inaccuracies.  However, some aspects of this show are new to this media genre and present the smallest of steps towards historical accuracy.  It also stands as a unique production for the pirate genre in Hollywood.

The Inaccurate

From a material culture perspective, Black Sails resembles most of the productions made in the past century.  Every shot features inaccurate sets, props, and costumes.  For instance, the pistol held by captain of a merchant vessel during the first battle scene in the first episode dated from late in the eighteenth century.  The color-tinted glasses worn by Jack Rackham in the first season came after the Golden Age of Piracy.  Many of the pirates wore boots that would not be appropriate for the time and context of the show.  The list of inaccuracies could go on for many pages.  The show’s choice in material culture is not surprising.  Why does this mistake happen so often in film and television productions involving pirates?  Budget and audience expectations are the most likely explanations.  Plenty of costume and prop departments already contain sizable inventories for films set during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras.  A typical viewer of this show, or any other pirate-themed production, will not know about the changes in eighteenth-century material culture that makes using items from 1795 wrong for Black Sails’ setting of 1715.  Many audiences practically expect the see post-period material culture in their pirate films since so many others previous movies used similar sets, props, and costumes.

The costuming of the show does repeat many of the mistakes made by past media representations of the pirate era, but with slight changes.  The show uses dirty and drab clothing on many occasions.  Black Sails’s producers wanted a particular style for their show.  The director, costume designer, and others involved in selecting attire for the show picked particular types of garments, designs, and color pallets to create the particular style for the show.  Producers of shows and films regularly make such stylistic choices.  The selection of dirt and duller colors appears to be a style choice by the makers of Black Sails.  In the past couple decades, Hollywood found audiences responded well to gritty-looking environments in their movies, and began applying it whenever possible.  Some viewers of historical films think that dirt and drab equals an accurate product.  This makes it easier for people promoting the show to claim they are accurately portraying history.  This choice does help bring some clothing closer to being correct for the era.  While the lower class did witness plenty of bland colors, other colors did exist, though replicating them in a period correct hue is sometimes easier to research than it is to produce.  The use of grimy and duller clothing can easily trick any audience into thinking that the producers of a show or film tried to do research for their costumes.  However, dirt cannot cover up that the style of breeches used is wrong for the period portrayed and other incorrect choices of attire.  Earth tones and grime do not equal a form of, “instant accuracy in a can,” which costumers can spray onto clothing to make them instantly accurate.  Beyond this particular trend, Black Sails also engages in Hollywood’s obsession with leather clothing and the limited use of hats.  The latter issue may be either potential budget issues, a desire by modern actors and directors to avoid wearing hats since it hides the actors’ hairstyles, or a combination of both.

The ships featured in Black Sails also follow in the footsteps of past films by repeating the use of larger vessels in almost every maritime scene.  The large ship with many guns and large open decks is a common sight in pirate movies.  The ship’s big open decks allow for huge masses of men, armed with cutlasses, the necessary room for cameras to capture large combat scenes.  Large amounts of guns allow for brilliant shots of ships trading broadsides.  In reality, more Caribbean pirates sailed in sloops and other smaller vessels than in larger three-masted ships.   Pirates did capture and use the sizable ships, making them “ships of force.”  However, before the bigger ships, most pirates cruised in smaller vessels.  Starz only featured large ships in their show until the last episode in season two, where they presented a harbor that included, via CGI, two vessels with less than three masts.  Season three featured the show’s first sloops.  This choice probably came about because of audience expectation, purposeful choices by the producers, and budget.  For the latter issue, the show built only the outsides of ships and parts of the upper decks.  For shots inside cabins, the hold, or other inner parts of the ship, producers used sets inside indoor studios.  They did not make the same efforts seen in replicating some of the historical sailing vessels that exist today.  The show built the exterior of an entire three-masted ship and half of a second one in their first season, built another large ship in the second season, and a sloop in the third season.  The priorities in Black Sails appeared to place good-looking large ships higher than featuring the more appropriate, but less exciting, smaller craft in their show.

Beyond material culture, some of the other choices made by Starz created inaccuracies that other pirate shows and movies never dealt with prior to Black Sails.  Since the producers targeted the show towards an adult audience, nudity and sexuality appear in a way never seen in this media genre.  Practically all the prostitutes in Nassau’s brothel have clean skin, no scars or blemishes, and astoundingly appealing curves and proportions. They are closer to looking like modern models than eighteenth-century prostitutes.  So far, none of these women shows signs of suffering diseases typical of the era, such as small pox, which leaves scars on those who survive it.  None of the women are average looking or worse, which is surprising considering that prostitutes came in all sorts of appearances, shapes, and conditions.  Plenty of women with some unappealing features, both today and in the past, entered this trade out of desperation.  Some prostitutes, especially those who catered to upper class men in Europe, would have somewhat resembled the women in this show, but many more who received money from common class clients did not.  The women of this show are idealized versions of prostitutes made to appeal to modern audiences, and are not historically correct. This might also explain why three of the four female primary cast members are bisexual. Such a choice by the producers and writers of the show says more about the culture of modern audiences, and has little to do with the culture of the early eighteenth century.  Appealing to the audience might also explain why the other main actors on screen tend to maintain good hygiene that is closer to modern standards rather than eighteenth-century practices.  This includes people having complete sets of straight white teeth, which would have appeared as exceptional during that time.  The show also decided to use language they thought would be more familiar to their audience, even if it created another inaccuracy.  Starz decided to use modern curse words, in particular the word “fuck,” and other variants, in the dialogues of their characters.  The show uses it beyond the context of a verb on many occasions. Using the word to refer to the action of coitus is correct, but using in any other manner is inaccurate for 1715.

James Flint and John Silver in season 2, episode 1 of Black Sails.

James Flint and John Silver in season 2, episode 1 of Black Sails.

The Vague and the Accurate

Some of the things portrayed in Black Sails are not as easily categorized in regards to accuracy.  One such issue is the portrayal of black people in pirate crews.  The issue of blacks and their treatment by pirates is a question pirate historians still debate today. Some say pirate crews presented beacons of freedom to black people in the Atlantic world; others say white pirates mostly considered blacks as tradeable property.  What pirates did with black men onboard varied between crews and circumstances. There are documented instances when white pirates considered blacks as property or used them as menial laborers on pirate ships.  Other times, the European-descended pirates considered black men as part of the general crew.   The issue of recruiting crews could play a significant role on whether a pirate crew treated black men as equal crewmembers.  An upbringing in a culture influenced by European biases to black people did not disappear instantly onboard a pirate ship.  Even if black men received equal treatment in regards to crew membership, the perception of them by white crewmembers is a different matter.  Black Sails does show black men as members of crews with votes.  One significant black character, Mr. Scott, briefly holds the position of quartermaster in one of the pirate crews.  When our main pirate characters do discuss slavery, the show seems to favor the idea that pirates did not like slavery, though it is difficult to determine if all the other pirates are of a similar mind or just some of the leaders.  In this show’s version of Charles Vane, he opposes slavery the most since, as a child, he served as some kind of force laborer, possibly an indentured servant, in a wood cutting camp.  Flint allies himself with a maroon community in season three, though it is still hard to determine if Flint believes in treating black people as equals or if the alliance is only a relationship of convenience.  Meanwhile, the show portrays the keeping and sale of slaves on New Providence during its control by pirates on at least three occasions.  Overall, the show is vague about the stance pirates had regarding black people in general, which may not be a bad thing since history does not provide one concise answer to this issue.

Figuring out what these pirates fought for is also a confusing issue for the show.  Black Sails portrays several of the pirates as fighting to create their own democratic corner of the world that provides equality, freedom, and the ability for people to make their own fortunes without the restrictions placed upon them by English and colonial society.  On at least one occasion, the pirates tried to recruit men by saying tyrannical merchants and their captains oppressed them.  The show also features plenty of pirates thinking about their own personal profits.  There does not appear to be one solid mindset on the show for what motivates the pirates, except for the show’s general theme of “us against the world.” Having vague and yet diverse motivations might benefit the show from an accuracy standpoint.

Black Sails sets itself in circumstances where actual historical events and people mix together with fictional people and events.  A significant part of the cast are fictional characters taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. At the same time, historical figures, including Charles Vane, Anne Bonny, Jack Rackham, Blackbeard, and Woodes Rogers, are also part of the Black Sails story.  Other characters are original inventions from the writers.  One overarching goal of the show is to present a story of what happened before the events of Treasure Island.  Since there is a fictional plot at the core of the show, it is not surprising that the producers decided to use history primarily for inspiration.  Trying to stay consistent to the historical record and maintain a good fictional plot that did not depend on history would not be easy.  Using history as inspiration allows writers more flexibility.  The show producers only wished to give Black Sails a historical flavor.  While this mixing of fiction and historical creates inaccuracies, the context of the Treasure Island plot makes it difficult to be critical of these choices.  The show is sometimes surprising with the number of details and events it includes from history.  Judging the material culture Black Sails used to give the show the feeling of the past is different from analyzing this show’s plot, since the latter never intended to recreate a true story.

The show may have issues with accuracy, but it also managed to make strong efforts towards historically correct portrayals of combat.  Battles in Black Sails stand out from almost every pirate film.  The violence is at a scale previously unseen for Hollywood pirates.  More importantly, the fights are not all large boarding actions with masses of cutlass-wielding men engaging each other on a ship’s top deck.  Show adviser and historian Benerson Little, an expert of period maritime combat, probably helped the show choose these more realistic combat scenes.  Overwhelming targets with firepower, merchants surrendering instead of battles, fighting from strong points at the ends of the ship rather than on the main deck, the more regular use of muskets, wounds with more than just a few drops of blood, and more are all accurate aspects of fights during the Golden Age of Piracy that do not appear enough in previous media depictions.  The show’s first season featured the most accurate portrayals of sea combat in the show.  After season one, while still violent and different, the battles do not emphasize the tactics Benerson Little highlighted in his research, and seem to prioritize highlighting the spectacle of fights.  While the show’s use of correct battle tactics changed, the fights still stood as violent and did not turn back to the old stereotype of all men armed with cutlasses as previously mentioned.

Not all aspects of these combat scenes are accurate. For instance, the second season features pirates capturing a one hundred gun ship of the line and manning a broadside with only one hundred men or less.  Overall, most of the crews seen on the three-masted ships in this show tend to number below a hundred and frequently below fifty.  This would be much more reasonable if all the crews sailed smaller vessels such as sloops.  But ships of force would often have bigger crews, often above a hundred men.  For a crew of fifty to one hundred men to be able to properly man the fifty large caliber guns on one of the broadsides of a hundred-gun warship is unrealistic.  Such large ships of the line often contained crews of eight hundred men.  One hundred might slowly operate one broadside of only one of the warship’s gun decks, but not on all three of its gun decks at the same time.    While not perfect, the show makes a strong effort at presenting a different version of pirate combat and helps make a step towards accurate battle depictions during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Finally, next to combat, the show does an excellent job at portraying pirates as criminals and not always as “the good guys.”  Attempts to paint the pirates actions as justified are minimal, with few exceptions.  To say the least, Flint, Vane, and the other pirates are not, “The pirates who don’t do anything,” that dominate piracy portrayals in media today.  Instead, they regularly take innocent merchant vessels as prizes, and sometimes kill off entire crews in the process.  Media portrayals from the past, if they did portray pirates attacking such innocent targets, often justified it somehow or portrayed those pirates as the, “bad pirates.”  Some exceptions exist, such as the early film The Black Pirate in which most of the pirates are murderous thieves, but many of the pirate movies from the 1930s to the 2000s made their starring pirates into “good guys,” and then justified their actions.  Declining to morally justify these pirates in any significant way, along with the way the show present violent combat, is a small step that can help the pirate genre move away from Hollywood’s old portrayals of pirates.

James Flint in season 1, episode 1 of Black Sails.

James Flint in season 1, episode 1 of Black Sails.

The Uniqueness of Black Sails from a Media Perspective

While Black Sails sometimes falls into typical tropes seen in portrayals of pirates from the past century, it also treads new ground at the same time.  The pirates of this show are far from being portrayed as, “good guys.”  Starz’s efforts to make a pirate show also resulted in something never seen in the pirate genre before, a mainstream show or film with highly mature content.  Mainstream media portrayals of pirates always made products for a broad audience, meaning no gratuitous violence, overly foul language, or nudity.  In the pirate genre, there has never been a mainstream pirate film above the PG-13 rating.  Only four television shows made before 2014 centered on historical pirates, all of them family-friendly adventures.  One other show based on pirates, NBC’s Crossbones, did premiere the summer after Black Sails aired its first season.  NBC’s effort to cash in on the pirate genre failed, garnering low viewership, no renewal for a second season (though it may have been designed to be a standalone series to begin with), and its last two episodes hastily aired together as one long episode on a Saturday (instead of it’s normal Friday airtime slot).   Besides being the first pirate-centered show on television in over half a century in the United States, except for miniseries and made-for-television movies, Black Sails is the first mainstream adult portrayal of pirates in the history of film and television and the first pirate show to make it past one season.

Why did it take so many years for the pirate genre to make a show like Black Sails?  First, the moral guidelines laid out by the Motion Picture Production Code (known as the Hays Code) prevented violent, sexual, and morally troubling productions resembling Black Sails existing in the mainstream until the late 1960s. The type of combat scenes, sexuality, and morality seen in this show did not begin appearing in the mainstream until the second half of the twentieth century.  These restrictions disappeared and allowed filmmakers more freedom in the content they created, but the collapse coincided with a decline in pirate movies.  By the late 1960s, Hollywood studios no longer produced large numbers of pirate films and took down their long-standing ship sets that allowed companies to make so many of them from the 1930s to 1960s.  The Hays Codes and the collapse of the “Golden Age” of pirate films in the 1960s both delayed an adult pirate film or show.

A new age of film beginning in the late 1960s also brought about new approaches to film that would further inhibit someone producing something like Black Sails.  Previous pirate and maritime films used sets for most of their productions. Starting in their earliest days, pirate films and shows used ships built on sets and large models in tanks, along with the occasional real ship filmed at sea.  From the 1970s onward, maritime movies increased the use of real ships and more non-movie set locations compared to other films of the past.  If a movie took place in a tropical environment, movie makers often went to a tropical environment for filming.  If the production needed ships, producers often built or rented real sailing ships and used them out to sea.  Ships on sets or in controlled water tanks still had their place, but plenty of productions now mixed in real ships onto their maritime movies.  Without pre-made ships waiting on sets like those from the mid-twentieth century, the expense of shooting in more real world locations, and the further costs of using more sailing ships outside of water tanks, the budgets of maritime films exploded.

Since the cost of maritime and pirate movies began to increase, filmmakers and investors became more cautious in what they decided to produce. Hollywood made many pirate films in the mid-twentieth century.  After 1970, filmmakers appeared to believe audiences no longer wanted to see movies about pirates, and produced few historically set pirate films in the next three decades.  The few pirate films Hollywood did make, including Swashbuckler (1976), Pirates (1986), and Cutthroat Island (1995), all failed in box office ticket sales.  Because pirate movies appeared to be at a high risk of failing, and cost a lot of money to make, most film makers probably saw the idea of making a pirate film targeted at adult audiences as too risky since an R-rating limited the number of people who could see the film.  While viewers under the age of 17 could see these films if accompanied by an adult, and some kids sneaked into R-rated films without their parents or an adult, this rating did inhibit audience sizes.  The rating of a film can influence audiences on whether to see a film or not, and some people become less likely to see a film if it is R-rated.  This did not mean that a well-made pirate film with an R-rating would automatically fail to make money, since many other R-rated films of that time were profitable in the box office.  The more adult rating simply meant that the combination of large budget and the slight limiting of a potential audience resulted in larger gambles for companies producing pirate films.  After 2000, PG-13 films became the biggest moneymakers of Hollywood films, especially when added together for overall ticket sales.  Currently, the R-rated film with the highest U.S. domestic-gross in ticket sales is Passion of the Christ (2004) at $370 million, and The Matrix Reloaded (2003) is the highest grossing R-rated film in world-wide ticket sales at $742 million (though 2016’s Deadpool, still in open release as of March 26, 2016, could take first place in world-wide ticket sales and has likely settled into second place for U.S. domestic sales). While there are still plenty of R-rated films, Hollywood does not provide the same large budgets they are willing to give to PG-13 movies.  Maritime and pirate films for theater release often need, and usually receive, huge budgets.  The budget for Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise numbers in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  A recent maritime film, In the Heart of the Sea (2015), cost $100 million to produce (and failed to make back its budget in the box office, closing at just under $94 million in world-wide ticket sales).  Considering the size of the investment, along with the current trends in box office ticket sales, it is not surprising Hollywood is shy about investing large amounts of money into maritime and pirate films, especially with an R-rating.

Black Sails falls into an interesting situation for Hollywood.  Since this product comes from Starz, a premium cable channel, it does not adhere to the same standards as basic cable channels for mature content.  Starz is currently attempting to grow into a company that can directly compete with its rival, HBO.  It has purchased the wildly successful basic cable channel AMC (American Movie Classics), invested heavily into making more original content, and is preventing Starz content from airing onto Netflix’s American catalog to force people to go to Starz for the shows the channel produces.  For premium channels, more adult shows such as HBO’s Sopranos and Game of Thrones helped increase the size of their audiences in the past decade.  Since these premium channels wish to build their audiences, they appear more willing to take risks, hoping that investments in fresher ideas will gain them viewers.  Since Disney proved that audiences still wanted to pay money for shows about pirates, and since Starz wanted content that could attract the attention of new viewers, Black Sails appeared to be a viable project for Starz.

This does not mean that Starz has not tried to accommodate the risk Black Sails posed from a budget standpoint.  Spending lots of money on sets, costumes, ships, and props is extremely difficult to avoid.  The show did use ships in tanks or stationary open-air ship sets, which is easier and often less expensive than sailing ships on open waters.  Starting a show like Black Sails requires a significant financial investment, but does not need the same level of investment every season.  Once Starz produced all the props, sets, and other necessary items needed for the show’s first season, it does not need to produce them from scratch again for future seasons.  In addition, Starz decided to film in South Africa.  Movies, television shows, and documentary producers currently use South Africa for historical productions on a large scale.  South Africa supplanted Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean as the cheaper place for filming outside of the Western Hemisphere a few years after the new millennium began.

From a creative standpoint, Black Sails tried to ensure their success by copying the show Game of Thrones and included qualities that would appeal to the lowest common denominator in their audiences; large amounts of violence, foul language, and sex.  While making large budget shows featuring these characteristics is a risk, there is a difference between something having this kind of content and exploiting it for the shock factor that might attract audiences.  Complex and engaging plots can be good and earn shows viewership, but they do not always create large profitable audiences.  However, Hollywood and the television industry know from experience that sex, violence, and drama created through the previous two points can easily attract viewers.  These aspects of the show can seem like distractions from developing plots and characters.  Some good sea fight or sexual interactions can be appropriate and are not exploitative inclusions.  However, the producers of Black Sails wanted as many viewers as they could attract at the beginning to jump start their audience size. They bet that exploitation would attract more people than it would drive away.  As time progressed, the number of times the show used these adult aspects of the show in a more exploitative manner declined in some ways.  The first few episodes of season one featured them heavily, but afterwards slackened slightly.  The second and third seasons featured less exploitation of sexual content than the first season.  Meanwhile, the exploitation of violence and modern cursing appears to stay more or less consistent throughout the show’s run, although the first season appeared to feature a couple more outright battle scenes than the second and third seasons. These slight decline in the number of scenes featuring significantly bloody battles or nudity appears to coincide with the increased effort the show made to develop plots and characters in the second and third seasons.

Even though Starz renewed Black Sails for a fourth season, one question remains, why does the greater public appear to have little knowledge of the show’s existence?  Why is Black Sails not the Game of Thrones of Starz in regards to viewership numbers?  Many people know of HBO’s Game of Thrones, even if they have never seen one episode.  Meanwhile, if brought up in a casual conversation, fewer people will know what Black Sails is or which channel airs it.  There are many factors to explain why this happened.  Game of Thrones came from a book series with a huge following.  It is a popular property within the realm of the twenty-first century’s “geek” or “nerd” pop-culture.  Black Sails is a prequel the writers of the show created for a book that, while famous, does not have the same kind or size of following.  In addition to having some different fan bases, viewers expecting Black Sails to be Game of Thrones, but with pirates, might find themselves disappointed that the former is not a duplicate of the latter with different sets.  Starz, while growing, still does not have the same name recognition or media outreach as HBO.  This may be the most inhibiting factor next to Starz being a premium cable channel, which also limits their viewership.  Airing on Saturday nights in the United States might also impact viewership numbers, though Starz’s repeat airings of the show during the week and the use of digital recording devices limits the negative effects of the show’s time slot.  The fact that Starz is not allowing Black Sails to go on America’s Netflix catalog might also be restricting another avenue from which the show could gain viewers (although, as mentioned previously, this is part of a strategy to force people to subscribe to Starz).  There is the possibility that Starz might release Black Sails to Netflix and other similar services after the show concludes its whole run (thus generating profits from royalties and opening up more people to the kind of content Starz can produce, and helping to convince some people to subscribe to Starz to watch their other newer content).  All this contributes to Black Sails’ lack of reputation in many public discussions.

If the response to this show is somewhat lacking, why does Starz continue to invest in Black Sails and renewing it even before their latest season’s premiere?  While the public’s visible enthusiasm may not be large, this does not mean audiences are not watching it.  There are a couple dozen ways people can now watch television content. While the Nielsen ratings used to be the primary means of measuring a show’s success, it is now less reliable since newer means of viewing a show will not always register with Neilsen’s viewership measurements.  The Nielsen ratings reported that the Black Sails same day viewership of the show numbered 632,000 at its lowest and 860,000 at its highest.  To give context to these numbers, according to Nielsen, practically all of CBS’s (an American broadcast network) Thursday primetime shows had between eight and ten times as many live or same day viewers as Black Sails. On the night Black Sails premiered the first episode of season 3, a movie on the Lifetime channel had four times as many viewers.  However, live viewership does not tell the whole story of a show’s success.  In the age of digital viewing and digital recording, many people watch shows well after the first day it airs.  According to a press release by Black Sails from the summer of 2015, each episode in the first two seasons of the show averaged 4.5 million viewers per episode across multiple types of viewing platforms.  It is hard to determine the success of a show purely by what numbers are available to the public regarding viewership.  Next season will result in even more numbers that Neilsen will not be able to access or process as Starz finally establishes its own stand-alone service this year for people who want to watch its shows online when it premieres, but do not pay for cable/satellite subscriptions.  A more significant indicator of the show’s success is that Starz regularly renews Black Sails months before the premiere of each season.  This suggests that Starz thinks the show does well enough that it helps keep up the channel’s subscriber numbers, and thus warrants the show’s continuation.  It should be noted that rating the success of a premium channel’s show is significantly different since they rely on subscription income rather than money paid by advertisers.  At the least, Black Sails accomplishes something well enough to someone at Starz that they eagerly renew the show each year.

* * *

Black Sails is an important production.  The show does falls into some of the common tropes of Hollywood has about piracy, and adds exploitation into the mix.  However, their attempt to make an adult version of a pirate story, their different portrayals of combat, and the ambiguity of whether the actions of the pirates are bad or good are all significant.  No other films or productions attempted to make a show about pirates in this manner.  John Silver, Charles Vane, James Flint, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Blackbeard in Black Sails are not Disney’s Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, Elizabeth Swan, and especially not Jake of the Neverland Pirates.

Film, television, literature, and art all contributed to a general media “taming” of pirates in the modern era.  Pirates received the same treatment that the American West of the nineteenth century received by media in most of the twentieth century.  The Caribbean of the early eighteenth century and the West of the nineteenth century both had harsh, difficult, violent, and morally questionable realities.  The media adopted the myths surrounding both these periods in history and used them as inspiration for different, fictional, worlds that featured adventures producers could market to large general audiences.  Many times, they made them safe enough for children, even though the Caribbean and the American West featured plenty of content that is adult in nature.  It is not a problem that there are child versions of the past, including a family-friendly version of pirate history.  The problem is that no film or television show before Black Sails existed to present the adult version of pirate history.  No pirate films or shows presented more realistic and gruesome pirate combat scenes before 2014 in the pirate genre, only the romanticized combat scenes, which some argue disservices audiences by glorifying violence.  The Western genre received their more adult versions of the West in the later twentieth century.  The mature features of Black Sails and the later films in the Western genre both have exploitative aspects, which can be problematic for some people.  However, for the pirate genre, having any adult aspects at all helps make a first step towards bridging the huge chasm between Hollywood and history for the Golden Age of Piracy – a particular step that takes it away from the marketable and tamed pirates Hollywood created (as pictured below).

An extreme example of Hollywood's taming of pirates. From Disney's Jake and the Neverland Pirates. In an effort to make pirates friendly enough for children, Disney literally contradicts the definition of piracy in this "Pirate Pledge."

An extreme example of Hollywood’s taming of pirates. From Disney’s “Jake and the Neverland Pirates.” In an effort to make pirates friendly for children, Disney literally contradicts the definition of piracy in this “Pirate Pledge.”


Update, 3/26/2016: Parts of the article changed to take into consideration developments during the rest of Black Sails’ third season.

25 thoughts on “Editorial: Black Sails, Historical Accuracy, and the Pirate Genre in Hollywood

  1. Well done, David! I googled something about the historical accuracy of the show while attempting to muddle through the final episode of the final season. I am far more entertained by your article than any episode of the show to date.

    The moment I saw a wheel on a ship, I knew there would be issues. When they intro’d John Silver I was definitely confused & felt betrayed. Even after watching all 4 seasons, I couldn’t stand the moronic warping of history another minute – even with only 70 minutes left.

    But your article has brought to light in just one paragraph or so why it’s so moronic. A purposeful blend to set up a prequel. I knew that was the case early on, but I couldn’t reconcile it in my craving for historical accuracy until you put it in black & white. I know far too much about all these characters to willingly watch them be made into completely different personas with storylines so unlike & less interesting than their true lives.

    I could write dozens of articles disputing all the historical failures of Black Sails, but it’s really the show’s inability to make an adventure fun that has lost me. The lack of “heart” is really problematic. Focusing on so many characters, the most central being the most ficticious, has really ruined it for me. Who am I supposed to care about in in Black Sails? The most noble character of Woodes Rogers has been besmirched in a way that is truly heartbreaking. When he first appeared it looked like they may get back on track historically. But no. Let’s make him an evil man who tortures & murders, rather than a Quaker who prays for the men he’s trying to save. Rogers was never at war with pirates. His whole purpose was to redeem them.

    But the worst offense of Black Sails is all the TALK. TALK. TALK. Ad nauseam. I fast-forwarded through most of the first 3 seasons while binge watching. Obviously I missed some plotpoints, thank God, because every plotpoint I did catch was ridiculous & contrived. Four season fighting over ONE chest of treasures that never gets pilfered? Really? Do they understand what a pirate is?

    If pirates were ever sober long enough to be so rational & reason through EVERY LITTLE MOVE THEY MADE, they may truly have changed the world much faster, & they would have been just as boring as these characters who never shut up. These writers never even heard of subtext.

    Despite all my negativity toward the show, I do applaud the effort & the push into a new era. I just hope it’s accomplished more to pique interest in history than to stomp it out. The current culture of denying, erasing & rewriting history is a dangerous one. You know what they say about repeating history…

    • “The current culture of denying, erasing & rewriting history is a dangerous one. You know what they say about repeating history…”
      I know, but I don’t subscribe to that old worn out phrase, because I don’t find it to be true. History does appear to be have some remarkable patterns, but to say it just repeats itself is simplifying it too far. I prefer this quote written in a book by Mark Twain and Charles Warner.
      “History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.”

      “But your article has brought to light in just one paragraph…” just for confirmation, which paragraph?

      • Basically I was referring to the paragraph (or was it spread out more than that?) about the show’s creators’ conscious choice to borrow the characters from history while inserting them in a fictitious prequel for Treasure Island.

        I had first thought your article would be setting straight all the mischaracterizations of the infamous cast of characters. Instead, you addressed the Hollywood-ization in the production, which I found equally fascinating.

        • Trying to list all the accuracy problems in detail would take a lot of work, and to what purpose? It wouldn’t encourage people to think critically or to explore the history themselves. It’s also what everyone would expect a historian to do. I decided to take a different approach and provide something new.

  2. A really informative piece. I was intrigued at just how accurate this series is. It appears my initial thoughts were correct. It’s still bloody good though!

  3. Great piece and very informative. I would love to see this show include more historically accurate events, as this period was violent, full of island wars over British , Spanish and French rule…pirates that roamed the seas and stole bounty from ports and ships…as in James Michner’s “Carribean” . It should be more like that, there really WAS a Captain Morgan, and many other famous pirates .

  4. Black Sails, while being an entertaining show about pirates for a mature audience, seams to be hack of a show. Your article is very enlightening and something I’ve drawn from it was the writers and the producers didn’t know if they wanted to go the historical “Master and Commander” route…or the “Game of Thrones” fantasy route in the first season. Obviously they were looking for their audience. There was a lot of historically entertaining things in the first season that appealed to people who enjoyed historical shows despite manipulating history to advance the story, while still at the same time throwing in sex, cursing and violence. But by the second season it became very clear what audience they were trying to appeal to and I think it hurt them more than it helped. Yes, them taking that ship of the line was absolutely ridiculous. In fact, it was completely absurd, severing all ropes to historical naval warfare, destroying that appeal to some people. I mean, holy cow what were they thinking!?!?!?

    Second, it completely made a hack of history, the biggest being Ned Low’s character. They had the best opportunity in any show to create a love/hate character to keep audience members watching. Instead, they killed him off without developing his true story, which is as brutal as it is interesting. The real story of pirates is way, way more entertaining and interesting than any fiction story, and the writers not taking advantage of this shows how lazy and incompetent they are. Just look at the story of Mary Read! Why that isn’t a movie I’ll never know!

    Third, gay pirates. Nobody has said anything about them making gay pirates a main story plot in the first half of the second season so I will. Before I continue, let me explain my position. I don’t care if there’s homosexuals in a show. I didn’t care in the first season when they hinted about Jack Rackman or even Flint being gay. But what they did in the second season was an obvious social statement and cheap writing. While the historical situation of homosexual pirates is debatable, it frustrates me they would take the biggest joke of a cliché and put it in this show. Gay butt pirates? Seriously?

    So I quit watching because of the lazy writing. While I think Black Sails is a hack of a show, I’ll give credit where credit is due. I admire them for taking this risk. I won’t watch it myself after season 2, but I would recommend it to certain people. But I think the biggest thing Black Sails ever did was prove to Hollywood they can make a profitable pirate movie/show with a mature audience, hopefully paving the way for more historically accurate and entertaining moves and shows.

    • Jim says it best: “The real story of pirates is way, way more entertaining and interesting than any fiction story, and the writers not taking advantage of this shows how lazy and incompetent they are.”

      As for Mary Read, I’ve written her story in various forms. But while I was a newbie screenwriter pitching it & not getting any real bites (due to the budget issues & all the things David has mentioned about the challenges in getting to this point in Hollywood’s psyche), writers & producers with greater access to Hollywood were apparently moving along with their bastardization of history. Little did I know I really never stood a chance. Wish I’d known that before flying all over the world doing research & actually falling victim to real pirate descendants in the Bahamas.

      My fear is that Black Sails may not have paved the way, but instead ruined it completely for moving forward in the future to tell Mary Read’s or any other true pirate’s tale. The only way it stands a chance now may be to do yet another rewrite that caters to an audience’s baseness & make it far more violent & crude than necessary. And if I don’t make Mary Read gay or bisexual, it will never fly in Hollywood…never mind that all evidence is that she was 100% heterosexual.

      • “Wish I’d known that before flying all over the world doing research”
        What research did you do? I ask because, if you look on my articles list, I have a history of Bonny and Read on there that I wrote. The history of those two are short according to the historical record. The history of their legacy and the legends about them make a much longer story. Have you read my piece on that yet?

        “My fear is that Black Sails may not have paved the way, but instead ruined it completely for moving forward in the future to tell Mary Read’s or any other true pirate’s tale.”
        I honestly believe it would take a heroic effort to ever see this accomplished. You would probably need to find a director with a lot of credit (as in has been around for a long time and has a strong reputation in Hollywood) to make it their passion project. Unfortunately, while maritime films that are the passion projects of veteran directors are often more accurate, they tend to be bad investments from Hollywood’s perspective. Peter Weir’s 2003 “Master and Commander” film wasn’t and resounding success (and probably lost some ticket sales to the other big maritime film of the year “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and Ron Howard’s 2015 “In The Heart of the Sea” was pretty much a flop. But, for both those directors, they cared more about doing the project they were passionate about. Both just happened to pick a genre of film with some of the shakiest success rates (mostly due to high production budgets) in Hollywood. If some veteran director decided to make a serious and accurate and adult pirate film for their passion project, maybe it would happen. But I’m not banking on that happening anytime soon.

        • I will definitely check out your articles on this & other subjects, David.

          I learned about Mary Read in 2008 at the then Key West Pirate Museum (now in St. Augustine) & became a little obsessed as I was ripe for a career change from music to writing. I was unimpressed by the 3rd-party accounts by so-called pirate experts, so I sought out primary sources at the Kew archives (England) as well as other museums & universities in England, Dutch archives at the Hague & in Breda (where Mary Read served as a soldier), the archives in the Bahamas & Jamaica, & all the Ivy League schools + other universities up & down the US east coast. The archives in Spain are pretty much the only ones I haven’t gotten to…yet.

          It is true that Mary Read & Anne Bonny’s true stories are elusive & supported by fewer facts than legends. However, their stories can be told in a credible, plausible way within an accurate historical context, perhaps only with a few of the usual bending of facts necessary for film production. And in my quest I did find a couple of tidbits I’ve yet to see anyone else uncover to date.

          During my research I became so familiar with the 1715 fleet here in my hometown area on the Treasure Coast of Florida (where the heart of the Golden Age really gets its start with the one pirate not mentioned in Black Sails, Henry Jennings), that I wrote an award-winning screenplay which I also turned into a YA book for the 300-year anniversary in Sebastian, FL in 2015.

          I appreciate your candid assessment of the state of things for these kinds of shows/movies. I don’t disagree. In fact, being my first screenplay, I’ve set the story of Mary Read aside…for now. Should I reach any stature in the industry with my other works, I plan to revisit it then.

  5. Author needs to check facts. The Island, 1980, with Michael Caine was rated R and portrayed pirates as theiving murderous miscreants.

    • You missed when I said “historically set” pirate films. “The Island” from 1980 takes place in the modern day, for 1980. The film’s pirates are inbred descendants of pirates from the 18th century. Doesn’t fit with the historically set pirate films that were the focus of the examination. But it is interesting for being rated R, being related to pirates, and failing in the box office.

    • Assassin’s Creed Black Flag is the reason this show was able to succeed, it put “real” pirates into the public consciousness…Edward Kenway is no children’s character.

  6. You might want to bone up on your maritime history before throwing words around like sloop. A sloop represents large and small vessels, in fact it was used in the same way we might use vessel today. Most of the smaller ships (IE: three mast vessels) were called sloops by the end of the age of sail.

    • Actually, you’re thinking of sloops of war. Beyond how the British navy identified their vessels, the eighteenth century marked a period where the rig of the vessel came to identify a vessel more than it’s hull shape. If a civilian vessel had three masts, especially by the end of the eighteenth century, it would be called ship rigged and not a sloop. The topic what “what is a sloop” is something that maritime historians have discussed quite a bit. If you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend “Sloops and Shallops” by Baker or “The Sloop of War: 1650-1763” by McLaughlan for your interest in three-masted vessels defined as sloops – both great books I read while I studied at East Carolina University for my degree in maritime studies.

  7. Starz, like Showtime, has done its best to compete with HBO on the violence and sexual front. Black Sails certainly serves that purpose–although I will admit that I’ve only seen a few episodes of the first season.

    But you are certainly right about it being a turning point in the pirate genre. Nothing comparable has been seen on the big screen or the little screen before. It is indeed curious that it took so long for there to be an Adult pirate film. And I have to say that your argument as to why it took so long–that of the expense and economic risks of the pirate genre in the post-studio Hollywood of the 1970s–is so far the most well-reasoned I have come across in my limited exploration of the subject. I would encourage you to explore the pirate genre completely at some point–as it relates to film, literature, television, and radio.

    On a media studies note, you are right to suspect the limits of the Nielsen ratings. Streaming and illegal web-downloading of shows has proved a problem for the statistical capabilities of Nielsen. Their website is very vague as to how they measure such ratings, most likely due to both competition from third party rating systems and inefficiency on their part.

  8. Good points, but please proofread your piece again. There are numerous spelling and grammatical errors, which are unseemly in a scholar’s writing.
    A further note on the 1976 movie Swashbuckler: though it epitomizes the Hollywood treatment of piracy, it is also just plain fun, a real romp, and entertainment has always been Hollywood’s first goal. Ir also contains one of the most daring, non CG (didn’t exist then) stuntmen/wagon falling off a cliff scenes ever filmed. A lot could have gone wrong with that stunt, resulting in death, but thankfully didn’t. Put reality on hold and enjoy another look at Swashbuckler, which deserved better at the box office.

    • Thanks for the comments. I received help from someone else to remove some of the worst issues with spelling and grammar. I will have to look through it more closely later this week when I have more time. Some of these errors I could have sworn I fixed in a previous draft of my work – I will have to reevaluate my editing process (and it would be great if I could find an editor to work with when I publish these articles to my site).

      “scholar’s writing” – Strangely enough, this editorial was supposed to be less formal post for my site, which is why I had no endnotes.

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