Finding Family with the Wilderpeople

Historian and legal expert Ariela J. Gross opens her 2008 work What Blood Won’t Tell with details from the life of Alexina Morrison, an enslaved person in Jefferson Parish Louisiana. In 1857, Morrison fled her master and found herself imprisoned in a local jail, where she convinced the authorities that she was actually white; she had been kidnapped and unfairly sold into slavery, she told them.  William Dennison, the local jailer, believed Morrison and took her into his own family, gradually integrating her into white society where she attended balls and other social functions.

Eventually, her master James White sued to return her to her previous status.  The case, Morrison vs. White, went through three separate trials and in each a jury of white men ruled either in favor of Morrison or the verdict resulted in a hung jury. Her ability to fit into white society, combined with her “blue eyes and flaxen” hair, convinced community members of her whiteness. “She had slept in their beds with their daughters … they surely would have known if she had even a drop of Africa blood,” local residents would retort. “Alexina may have had a ‘negro’ grandfather, and she certainly had an enslaved mother,” writes Gross, “but she exhibited whiteness in a way that convinced neighbors and jurors that she was white.”

America’s infamous “one drop rule” might have provided a sort of baseline for racial identity—even one scintilla of African blood defined an individual as black—but clearly race was performative. “Doing the things a white man or woman did—attending white churches or dances, sitting on juries, and voting (for men), exhibiting sexual purity (for women)—became the law’s working definition of what it meant to be white,” argues Gross. In other words, blood can only tell us so much about our identity.

Admittedly, a brutally racist society encouraged enslaved persons to sue for their freedom by appealing to the legal system that they were, in fact, white due to the above factors. Yet, blood has been used to define many relationships in Western society, not just one’s relationship to race.  The ties of family are often described in the language of blood and genetics; however, what constitutes family can be far more about the kind of performative aspects that Alexina Morrison and her supporters pointed to in 1857.

Perhaps Taika Waititi has given greater thought than most to what really constitutes identity, family and kinship, given the New Zealand filmmaker’s own mix of Maori and European heritage. Indeed, in the heartwarming international hit Boy (2010), eleven-year-old Alamein pines for his feckless, absent father, without realizing that his friends and neighbors function as his true family. And in the director’s last two movies—the hysterical mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and his current release, the quieter and more sincere Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)—Waititi has explored the many ways people build families outside of blood relations.

The vampire household at the core of Shadows undoubtedly bonds through blood—but more over its ingestion than anything genetic. “I think we drink virgin blood because it sounds cool,” Deacon (Jonny Brough) tells documentarians. To which his older counterpart Vladislav (aka Vlad the Impaler, played by Jemaine Clement, who also codirected the film) adds: “I think of it like this. If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.”

what we do in the shadows

Similarly, in Wilderpeople, the main character, a wayward but ultimately sweet-hearted New Zealand foster kid, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), finds family through his adventures with his foster parents, Aunty Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill).   Tragedy and the trials of months on the lam create a bond between characters that one can only describe as familial.

In general, Waititi has an eye for the absurd, a sort of “public school version” of Monty Python without the Cambridge references, as Tasha Robinson pointed out recently during a Filmspotting podcast. His vision of humanity seems to extend beyond conventional boundaries or looks to define them more broadly (as in the case of family), while remaining moored to common, mundane existence. “Mr. Waititi’s expansive sense of human beings in ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ allows his characters to endure loss and hardship without forcing them to be wholly limited by their suffering, as marginalized people too often are in fiction,” New York Times critic Manohla Dargis noted in her review.  “They’re romantic and pragmatic, eccentric and utterly ordinary.”

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All eyez on me

American pop culture casts an undeniable influence in Wilderpeople. Whereas the star of Boy obsessed over Michael Jackson, Ricky Baker’s persona consists of linguistic and sartorial choices based on American hip hop, primarily Tupac (“he’s a rapper, my best friend”).  Characters frequently deploy popular American movies from the 1980s (not to spoil it) as a means to explain situations and define personalities.  Even the child welfare services worker, Paula (Rachel House), who pursues Ricky and Heck for much of the film consistently refers to “No Child Left Behind” as her motto when describing her zealous quest to remove Ricky from his new home—these are, without saying too much, failed policies whether in America or New Zealand.

In this way, Waititi speaks to “how we live today,” as fellow Filmspotting critic Adam Kempenaar put it. Both definitions of family and identity come through lived experience rather than blood; Baker’s connection to Tupac derives from his time spent inhabiting the dead rapper’s world—an “imagined community,” if you will—just as his connection to Bella and Hec comes from spending time in theirs.

In contrast, the four of the five vampires at the heart of Shadows seem blithely unaware of popular culture. They dress much as they did hundreds of years ago, when they first became the undead. Their only fashion updates come from plying their craft. “Yeah some of our clothes are from victims. You might bite someone and then, you think, ‘Oooh, those are some nice pants!’” Viago (Waititi) explains. When a new vampire brings his decidedly human friend Stu into the mix, his knowledge of the internet has an immediate effect. “Leave me alone to do my dark bidding on the internet,” a distressed Vladislav tells his roommates. “What are you bidding on?” Viago asks. “I am bidding on a table.”  Stu’s influence is so appreciated he becomes one of the family; everyone promises not to eat him.

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Similarly—and hilariously—the neighborhood werewolves create another kind of kinship.  They might not be technically related, but they are nonetheless a “pack.” Like real-life wolves, they follow a strict hierarchy under the leadership of the not particularly competent leader Anton (Rhys Darby), who tries to get the group to restrain their lupine tendencies. (“We’re werewolves, not swearwolves!”)  Like other people lost and mixed-up in the modern world, these wolfmen get to experience a feeling of belonging in a newly constituted group, similar to or perhaps better than a biological family.  The fact that blood might be involved in either transaction—becoming a vampire or a werewolf—is largely beside the point.

Contemporary popular culture is full of such self-made families, of course.  The supposedly “traditional” nuclear family has waned in the United States and other countries with the rise of divorce, single-parenting, or simply the choice not to have children, and pop culture reflects this shift.  Characters find family in the workplace (The Office, 30 Rock) and a coffeeshop or a bar—in Cheers, the kind of family one might actually want; in Friends and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, maybe not so much.

Indeed, ToM favorite Wes Anderson has made this a consistent theme of his films. They may often center of roguish dads of questionable parenting skill, like Royal Tenanbaum or Mr. Fox, but they also show how people invent their own families out of whoever shows up for the job. There is poor Dignan in Bottle Rocket (1996), who yearns to turn a criminal gang into a substitute family and looks up to James Caan’s crime boss as a kind of paternal figure.  Steve Zissou insists he never wanted to be a dad in Life Aquatic (2004), despite the fact that he’s imprinted his name on a number of people his junior and created a (mostly) nurturing community out of a “pack of strays,” as he put it. (“I always thought of you two as my dads,” Willem Dafoe’s awkward Klaus admits.)

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We could go on—Bruce Willis’s “sad cop” in Moonrise Kingdom adopting orphaned Sam, or Gustave and Zero developing a paternal/fraternal relationship in Grand Budapest hotel.  The point is simply that connection by blood has never been strictly equivalent to family, any more than helping conceive a child is the same as fathering one. That might always have been the case, but it’s more salient today than ever in a world where families are taking on ever more complex forms, officially or informally.  Indeed, it is especially true when people such as doofus commentator Al Trautwig have the cluelessness and audacity to question whether an adoptee’s parents are her “real parents.”

The films of Taika Waititi, Wes Anderson and others remind us that family can be found in unlikely places—a vampire bachelor pad in Wellington, a rollicking run on the lam in the New Zealand bush, or even an oceanographic submarine, for that matter.