The controversial TVNZ drama Vegas has just finished its six-episode run. Since its debut, the story of a fictitious Māori gang embroiled in a botched drug deal experienced a big online backlash from viewers and Māori media critics.
They asserted that the Māori-in-gangs narrative continued to reinforce the damaging stereotype of Māori men as hyper masculine, criminal and violent.
Filmed in Rotorua, Vegas received more than $5 million from NZ on Air and some questioned why public funding should be used to continue to portray Māori in a negative light.
One outspoken critic even blamed the programme for the recent racist rant by former Eagle Brewing owner David Gaughan. The Canterbury businessman was forced to step down after the public outcry over his online post saying that "Māori are the scurge [sic] of New Zealand" and that the majority of Māori men beat their wives and should be put in jail.
"Vegas will strengthen negative Māori stereotypes," wrote the online critic about Gaughan's remarks. "Our rangatahi will be exposed to unkind and untrue words by people like this."
The backlash against the programme sparked online responses from co-creator and writer Michael Bennett and director Kiel McNaughton.
In defence of his work, Bennett, an award-winning screenwriter and director, wrote that he aspired for the series to be the "Sopranos in Rotorua" and that the gangster genre had produced some of the most morally layered stories in television and film history.
"Vegas treats life in the gangs as a collision of circumstances for our characters, not as preordained destiny," Bennett wrote. "Had the coin been tossed and landed a different way, they would be business leaders or viticulturists or poets or lawyers."
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There's been a mixed response among my whānau and friends when I've asked them about the series. Some despise the constant screen portrayal of Māori as gang members and drug dealers, while others are enjoying it purely for its entertainment value. "What's all the fuss about? It's just a TV show," one of my mates told me.
As a gay Māori male, whenever I watch the portrayal of Māori men as warriors or gang members, I never see myself reflected on the screen. It's a missed opportunity for content creators to acknowledge that our Māori world is diverse and we have compelling stories to tell in many different facets of life and experiences.
I grew up with whānau members who belonged to gangs and the reason I moved to Auckland 25 years ago was to work on the gang film What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, the sequel to Once Were Warriors. My role was to help make and sew all of the gang patches.
As with many Māori, I have seen the impact gang life has had on our loved ones and know that the issues they face are much more complex than what is normally portrayed on screen.
Believe it or not, some are committed fathers and husbands who are conflicted with their dual responsibilities. Others mature and grow out of gang life and leave to focus on their families and the community.
The debate about Vegas has forced a discussion about how we choose to portray Māori in film and TV. It's a debate we've been having since Once Were Warriors was released in 1994. These discussions are important and a positive step forward. It forces funders and creators responsible for Māori narratives to stop and think about the effect their choices will have on our culture.
There are a group of passionate and committed Māori who will scrutinise and hold them accountable for their choices to ensure that we minimise the portrayal of century-old stereotypes, showing local and international audiences that Māori are much more than drug dealers and gang members.