Lana Lopesi talks to the creators behind the much-anticipated drama on the Polynesian Panthers
My dad was dawn-raided. I found out as an art school kid asking too many questions on my own path to politicisation. I would follow friends to protests for any number of things, eventually coming to learn about the Polynesian Panthers, a group of young Pacific Islanders in the 70s running a movement for social change. Asking my dad if he knew anything about the dawn raids, I was shocked when he and my nana said yes.
Dad was somewhere between 3 and 6 years old when he heard the thumping on the door. With his mum, my nana, they fled out the back up the hill where they stayed until sunrise. They returned to find their neighbour in the flat in front of their own gone, never to be seen again. Dad and Nana were in New Zealand legally - my dad was born here, but that didn't matter with the reign of terror. As I found out, when you start to dig, the dawn raids touch more people than you might expect.
Recently, we hopped on Google Maps (satellite view) and found the Ponsonby house that was raided, a beautiful white villa with a red roof on Norfolk St. Two matching ones sitting right next to each, they stand in their original place as sole witnesses to what happened on that particular dawn, and many others like it.
Associate Professor and Polynesian Panther Melani Anae wrote, "If you ask most New Zealanders – even most Pacific people in New Zealand – who the Polynesian Panthers are or what the dawn raids were, you often draw a blank." Anae was absolutely right. However, this year brings with it a groundswell of attention not only on the dawn raids, but also on the Polynesian Panthers.
On August 1, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is offering a government apology for the dawn raids. The apology acknowledges the demeaning physical and verbal treatment of the time, but also the way that prejudices and stereotypes from the dawn raid era are still faced by Pacific communities today.
The apology coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Polynesian Panthers. A movement modelled on the Black Panthers in the United States, black berets and all, fighting against racial injustices faced by the Pacific community, including the dawn raids.
In this very live and political context, a new television series is being released. The Panthers has been created and executive-produced by Halaifonua Finau and Tom Hern. Over six episodes the drama takes us on the journey of 19-year-old Will 'Ilolahia, the Polynesian Panther party chairman, and charts key sentiments of the time, the formation and work of the Polynesian Panthers and the fallout that comes with the fight for change. The show stars Dimitrius Schuster-Koloamatangi, Lealani Siaosi, Roy Billing, Beulah Koale, Frankie Adams and Chelsie Preston Crayford. It's styled by the phenomenal Sammy Salsa, and accompanied by a killer soundtrack featuring Diggy Dupè, choicevaughan and Troy Kingi.
The show has been six years in the making. It started when 'Ilolahia contacted Hern, asking for help to turn his story into something for the screen. However, the project was never able to take off, hitting resistance and blockages for all sorts of reasons.
Finau, meanwhile, had heard murmurs about a Polynesian Panther project and that Hern was the guy. Eventually they made contact, and it all started to fall into place.
The appeal of the Polynesian Panthers' story is clear - a group of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, united to make the world a better place. At the heart of The Panthers, in many ways, is a story about a group of young guys. This was a big drawcard for Hern and Finau. They could see a lot of themselves in the experiences of those young men getting up to no good (and some good as well), both say.
For Finau, the Panthers "were just so cool," and so there was a sense of honouring that by similarly, making "our shit cool" in the vein of John Singleton films like Boyz n the Hood, Above the Rim, or Poetic Justice. Singleton's films have often been dubbed as giving Black people a voice, in ways that have significantly shifted pop culture. The films are what Finau and Hern name "street classic", a kind of critical acclaim that doesn't exist in the reviews necessarily, but in the garages, the family gatherings, the drink-ups. Finau continues, "I'm pretty sure if you ask most of my cousins what are the films that shaped our identity, our childhood it is those Singleton films – street classics."
Drawing inspiration from Black America is at the centre of the Polynesian Panthers' story, a kind of tension that sits within the work but extends from the story to the creative decisions, from the idea of the street classic to the creation of a hip-hop soundtrack for the show. Rather than just acting as music to sit alongside the work, it takes centre-stage, with Niuean rapper Diggy Dupè featuring in the show as rapper-narrator throughout the series. Given the show is set in the 70s, the prominence of hip-hop might not seem a natural fit. Yet when immersed in the series it's entirely appropriate, not only because it fits the street classic genre, but because it illuminates yet another way that the influence of Black culture has filtered into Pacific New Zealand creative expression.
With so much attention on the Polynesian Panthers and the dawn raids at the moment, there will be a lot of eyes on this project. Even though The Panthers is a fictionalised retelling of 'Ilolahia's story, there is external pressure for the creative team to get it right, the kind of pressure that can stifle creative endeavour.
"If we're thinking about that pressure all the time, we make whakamā choices, and we need to make bold choices," says Hern.
"Our responsibility is to be great in the way that we tell the story with the best of our abilities as a team, and that's what we constantly strive for; and if we're coming from the lens of fear of how something might be interpreted or this and that, we're not doing the greatest version."
Art has the unique ability to show us our world in ways which we may have not seen it before, a vital tool in sharing histories that are otherwise invisible. It lets us ask questions that we otherwise might not.
Hern is quick to remind us that it is their "version of the story and the artistic version" at that. Similarly, Finau admits that, being from Wellington, he didn't know much about the Panthers. However, he reconciled his lack of direct experience, as such, with the idea that The Panthers was "a creative reimagining of the Polynesian Panther story through our version of Will's eyes".
Choosing art over history, the pair and their extended creative team worked hard to keep the spirit of rebellion, and radicalism in their work, or in their words, the "swag". So while the work has its historical essence, if it comes down to "picking the factual version over the swaggy version – we'll go for the swag for the show". Similarly, when it came to the wardrobe, stylist Sammy Salsa would say this isn't strictly period "but it looks dope".
"If people are going, 'hmm wait a minute [looking at the minute details]' then we haven't done our job," says Finau. "They're not lost in the story or in the vibe or the swag of the show."
The Panthers has done a great job of adding nuance to not only the era but also to the characters. 'Ilolahia's character made the perfect kind of screen protagonist - someone who is complex and brilliant, a gangsta and an academic with big dreams; but also a person with flaws, and descended from noble Tongan bloodlines, no less. "These are always the kinds of real characters that I'm really interested in," says Hern. "These kinds of underdog heroes, but with contradictions to them."
The pair worked on the script every day for a year, enabling a deep development of each character and their storylines.
Hern says he and Finau are "really passionate about fighting for every character, so we don't have heroes and villains in the story. Even [Robert] Muldoon who's the 'arch villain' of the series, we wanted to deliver him in a way that isn't a one-dimensional racist but actually a populist fighting for power, because he's a bullied little boy who, like, just wants to be significant. That's more than the story that we've always known about Muldoon in the press."
I was surprised to find myself allying with one character in particular. Played by Chelsie Preston Crayford, Karen is the wife of a cop, introduced to us in the first episode as a "pig f***er". Through her character, we glimpse the other big issue of the 1975 election, the abortion debate and women's rights. Seeing these nods to the Women's Liberation Movement within The Panthers goes a long way to add complexity to the story.
Alongside Crayford, well-known actors Beulah Koale and Frankie Adams, who play Ice and Tess, returned to New Zealand for the show. The pair give great performances as a gang leader, and a mum and sex worker with no papers, trying to give her baby a better life. However, two of the stars of the show, lead actors Dimitrius Schuster-Koloamatangi who plays 'Ilolahia, and Lealani Siaosi who plays Melani Anae, make their lead acting debuts.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of The Panthers is that nestled within it is a vehicle for a whole new wave of Pacific creatives. This is the first production for Tavake, giving everyone on the team - Hern and Finau included - a huge opportunity to develop their own careers; this can also be said for the young actors such as Siaosi and Schuster-Koloamatagi. It extends to the musicians and stylist, but also to the lawyer working on the project.
Finau says the part of the project he's most proud of is this pathway they've created.
Hern adds: "Well, the Panthers were 18, 19, 20 years old when they started that revolution, and we were like, we need to be the oldest [working on the show] aye dox? It should be young and have that energy because that's who we're making it for, we're making it for Panthers 2.0 - that age group now who see themselves in these characters, and fight that fight now. So some boring stale biopic retelling of the 70s is just not going to speak to them."
For Hern, even though they felt "under pressure, the whole time to do great work", he's "never worked on a show or production before where the team have all been so committed to doing the best work that we can, and all just pushing each other to that".
The creative team now operates under the umbrella of Tavake, which takes its name from the Tavake bird. Finau explains the design as "being synonymous among the Pacific and is a guide for our navigators, and we called our company that because it was a guide that would lead us either to new horizons or home. Using that vaka, it's like no matter what, we're going to greatness, and we just keep moving forward."
Hern's Mum became sick with cancer in the last year before shooting and The Panthers' team were a key part of the support process. Then two weeks after Hern's mum passed away, Crystal Vaega, the show's co-producer gave birth to her second child, Kini Roy, who at 11 months old is a credited co-executive producer on the series. Hern says: "Kini Roy became this Minister of Wairua we called him; he really bound us together even more as a team."
There is something very specific in shared experiences of grief and birth that bind a team, these experiences galvanised the creative core, in their commitment to the project, but also to each other.
When I ask them what they're most proud of they tell me: "I'm most proud of the creativity that just oozes from the series. It's original, and it's bold, and it's everything that I hoped it would be."
Tavake has secured funding for a second season. I can't help but think back to Melani Anae's comments, and hope that very shortly it will be very difficult to draw a blank when you hear the name Polynesian Panthers.
The Panthers lands on TVNZ OnDemand as a full season on Sunday August 15, and airs weekly on TVNZ 1 at 9.30pm.