Vegas is a crime thriller about a gang leader trying to “free his people from the curse of methamphetamine.” Filmed in Rotorua with an almost entirely Māori cast, it tells the story of a gang trying to quit the meth-cooking business with one last pay day. FIlled with Māori acting legends and fresh new talent, it has been commended for its groundbreaking collaboration between Pākehā and Māori production houses.
In a Government initiative to get more Māori productions on screen, Vegas was born. This show attempts to give power back to Māori when it comes to the telling of our stories. The expertise and hard work of Māori creatives is evident on screen. The careful consideration of camera technique, the uniquely bush Māori wardrobe and the excellent Te Reo Māori grammar has effort written all over it.
The problem comes with the avenue in which this story was told. Described as Once Were Warriors with a redemption arc, Vegas has been criticised for reinforcing centuries-old stereotypes. The series has sparked a lot of debate and has Māori people both applauding and shaking their heads. A Spinoff article went in hard and said, “despite its aspirations, Vegas still links images of our men, our language, our haka, even our kaitiakitanga, to criminality, hyper-masculinity and violence.”
The overwhelming negative response had even prompted showrunner, Michael Bennet to pen a personal essay to battle the critics. As the executive producer Bennet, of Te Arawa descent, had to defend himself and ask viewers to look at the central messages of the series.
The plot has excellent world-building thanks to powerful performances by the talent on camera. But you’re telling me that with the plethora of Māori rangatira working on this story, you couldn’t have come up with a better story than an ‘angry Māori man on crack’? While I disagree with having this story told through a gang lens, I understand that this was the most effective way to tell a story about drugs. But I also know that this isn’t the only way to tell our stories.
So what do I think? Well it’s complicated. I see both sides of the argument and can empathise with both. But that’s some of my whānau in that production. I personally know how excited my small town got when camera crews came to our villages. I watched family members buzz at their faces on the screen. The show hired locals to work on and off the screen and had people earning a living wage.
Monetary value aside, I see the life lessons embedded throughout. Just like Bennet asked, I looked within and saw a message of decolonisation and fighting the current crack epidemic plaguing Te Ao Māori. The messages of crack slinging is very real and hits hard in small towns with a big Māori population. Growing up in Rotorua, I’ve seen the first hand effects of substance abuse. I’ve seen families split apart by crack. I’ve seen friends turn into unrecognisable beings all for a fix. As a child growing up around that stuff, I genuinely thought this would be my own future, I thought this was the only option available to me.
It was so ingrained in our upbringing that we had a multitude of names for the drug. “Fries,” “The Pipe,” “The Shit,” and even “The Glass Koauau.” It’s so prevalent that the crack epidemic has become a joke. The joke back home was that if someone lost a bunch of weight, F45 or not, it was because they were on fries. Making jokes was our way of normalising the problem.
Drugs have become a family affair with generations of families using and selling to get by. The show portrays families stuck in these toxic cycles and shows them suffering as a result. No one chooses this type of lifestyle, it chooses you. Situations in life lead you to do this; financial instability, unhealed trauma and pure desperation have you acting in a way you never thought possible.
So when ignorant racist politicians tell Māori to “help themselves” I have to ask but where is the help? A community can’t help themselves when the tools aren’t there. The tools to empower aren’t there, but you know what is around and in excess? Crack.
So while our people stay in poverty and addiction, sheltered communities call us the problem. We were never the problem. The problem is our institutions are unwilling to help us. Vegas is a call to action. It’s a call to the people in power to get Māori out of a shit situation they created.