I went to Aquaman for two reasons: First, the ticket was free. Second, this is basically underwater Magic Mike, right? I came for the pecs, I stayed for the pecs. But also for the analysis of what it is to be of two cultures. I mean races. I mean… worlds?
Aquaman, née Arthur, is the child of a land-dweller, lighthouse operator Tom Curry and an Atlantean Queen, Atlanna. He is played by Jason Momoa, who is of native Hawaiian and white European descent. He is definitely not the white, fish-talking blond of the comics. I’m happy to report they neither went the “colorblind casting” route, or worse, the one where his Atlantean lineage explains his tattoos and skin tone.
Instead, they simply cast the right actor for the role. Surprise! Temuera Morrison, an actor who is also Pacific Islander and white, was cast as Aquaman’s land-dwelling dad. Thank you.
I share a similarly complex background. I was American-born but lived abroad from ages 8 to 17, with each of my parents from a different country, namely Syria and the Philippines. So you see, I am just like Aquaman. And because we are twins, I saw an interesting reverberation between having a mixed actor play a mixed superhero. Particularly when new mom, Atlanna, informs Aquatot, “You are the bridge between land and sea.” The soundtrack soars, telling me: Yes! This mixed baby is hope! This mixed baby is the future.
I used to believe that stuff about being a bridge. Growing up, I had dreams directly related to it. They were always some variation of this:
I am on a plane. Passengers gasp, scream. Arab men yell and wave guns. Then, a terrifying silence. I know what I must do. I unbuckle my seatbelt. I walk forward, say my name. It is an Arab name, given to me by my Arab father. I reason with the hijackers. Seeing me, a mix of worlds, these would-be villains now make a different choice.
Dream me is a hero! Just by standing up and being seen for what I was, I SAVED LIVES. I was the bridge to peace. To safety. Aquaman, but chill.
I know. I know. Ridiculous.
It’s totally possible that I was just a really egocentric kid with a bloated sense of my own importance. I would later learn I wasn’t the only one having this dream, shaped by the one note (terrorist) representation of Arabs (terrorists) that we’d all been exposed to growing up. But also, being overly responsible for things outside our control is common territory for those of us who identify with two groups. Especially those that are in tension with one another, in my case Arabs and Americans. So, it was no surprise to me when a young Aquaman is told by his dad, “Your mother always knew you were special. She believed you’d be the one to unite our two worlds.” There it is.
No pressure, right?
Aquaman rose to the demands of his legacy and went into training with secret help from Vulko (played by Willem Dafoe), an Atlantean who wants to see his protégé reach full mixed potential. A glorious training sequence follows: high dives, speed swims, trident fights, fish chats. I, too, went into training when I learned my mission. As Aquaman was the bridge between land and sea, so I was apparently the bridge between East and West. “She was born in the states! She can run for president!” I ran for student government. I prepared tirelessly for Model United Nations, exclaiming “Point of Information to the Speaker!” and “Point of Parliamentary Procedure!” with an accuracy and timing that few could match.
See how alike Aquaman and I are? Literal twins. I’ll go on.
When Aquaman learns the truth about his mother’s fate and why Atlantis doesn’t want him, he rejects the call, instead using his learned skills as a vigilante. Similarly, I was over this bridge crap too. Bridges just get walked on. When I learned how little diplomacy had done for either of my parents’ countries I also changed how I used my skills. Rather than use debate skills and poli-sci knowledge to change the world, I decided… to become an actor.
So Aquaman and I are just living our lives. Him fighting pirates and going on benders, me waiting tables and doing experimental theater. Then violence came to claim both our journeys. Atlantis plans to wage war on land-dwellers after being on the receiving end of a deadly attack. Aquaman is called to bring the worlds together. War also called me back into the fray. In New York, in the weeks after 9/11, collective trauma was the order of the day. For a subset of us, the pain was two-fold. The reality of being part of a community vilified anew set in. There was a lot of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. America was on the verge of waging war on Iraq and Afghanistan after being on the receiving end of a deadly attack. I am not delusional — I protested all that but sadly this is not a piece about how I stopped those wars. Okay. Maybe there are SOME differences between Aquaman and me.
In my world, a lot of people were endangered. The police infiltrated communities, breaking down their ability to function, non-citizen Arabs and Muslims were told to register. The Patriot Act passed. People who looked “Arab” were being beaten up, spat upon, name called. Aquaman similarly goes through the ringer. He is chased, attacked, monitored, and called a mongrel and a half-breed repeatedly and relentlessly. By mid-film I was definitely over it and so was my date. And many of the POC friends I polled afterwards. Yes, Atlantis is intentionally homogeneous, with a focus on purity that has deadly results for some. But it’s a fantasy world. These slurs are very real world, and historically aimed at Momoa’s actual mix: white and indigenous. That story is rarely told, and this causal usage further minimizes the impact. Creatively speaking, using reality-based prejudice shortchanges us of innovation. How about some original surf’n’turf zingers sharply aimed at dehumanizing Aquaman that tell us more about Atlantis?
Creative decisions on racism aside, Aquaman reacts much as I did in the face of attack. He finds his allies, builds his team, and gathers the tools he needs to win. I gathered my people too. In this family I found many who had shared my nightmares. We gathered actors, writers, comedians, producers, and filmmakers. While Aquaman’s battle to become Atlantean and rule for peace was a quest marked with physical battles, ours was about claiming our voices. In a world that spoke of us as though we were subhuman and unworthy of justice, we created a counter narrative.
For us, it has been seventeen years since the quest began. If there is an Aquaman II and our journeys remain twinned, I have some predictions to make. His Atlantean bona fides will always be in question, and his land-dwelling loyalty will likely be challenged too. He will have to decide if he will fight every attack or ignore some and just accept for himself that he is both a land-dweller and an Atlantean. That “half” is an illusion, and so is “whole.” He might learn that instead of always fighting the small minded, sometimes it is more powerful to focus on building something new.
I am in the middle of my sequel now. I am still navigating all the strands of my lineage. But I can say that the nightmare that I, alone and in isolation, must single-handedly save anyone from terror is gone. When we all had those terrible dreams, it was before we knew one another. It was before we knew our strength. It was before we had reached out to all the many people across all the different communities who wanted to swim in these waters with us.
If my path is any clue, there will be a widening of his world. That beyond just Land-Water unity he and his team will come to realize that true liberation means the liberation of all peoples. Species? Worlds.
I never thought they’d make a movie based on my life, though. And I would have thought for sure it would be Marvel not DC 😉
Maha Chehlaoui is a creative producer and social change strategist of Filipino and Syrian heritage. She was the co-founding executive director of Noor Theatre, serving to support theater artists of Middle Eastern descent. Her latest endeavor, Pass the Mic Media, is aimed at amplifying diverse voices primarily through film and television. https://www.passthemicmedia.com/