By Negin Khodayari
A new miniseries, The Panthers hit the big screen on opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to showcase the history of the Polynesian Panthers. I had the honour of speaking with the cast—a joyful crew that contradicts the tone of the heavy storyline, one often overlooked in history. This six-episode miniseries created by Halaifonua Finau and Tom Hern tells the story of how the Polynesian Panther Party (PPP) was founded in 1970s Aotearoa, New Zealand and premiered on Sept. 9.
Following the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense across the U.S. in the ‘60s, six young Pacific Islanders recognized a need for social change in response to the racial injustices against Māori and Pacific Islanders in Aotearoa; so, they formed the PPP.
“I learned a lot, just about the impact that it actually had on our people,” said Schuster-Koloamatangi. “Growing up, I didn’t really know too much just because a lot of Islanders don’t talk about it and it’s not really taught in school.”
At that moment, I couldn’t help but recognize the lack of education surrounding Indigenous Peoples in Canada as well. Just last month, Ryerson University’s Board of Governors voted to change the school’s name after growing calls since 2017.
It wasn’t until the recent discovery of hundreds of undocumented and unmarked graves at Canadian residential schools that organizations and institutions began to take more urgent action and look deeper into this country’s dark history. Historically, Māori and Pacific Islanders have been continuously subjected to racial profiling, mass incarceration, and just recently acknowledged, immigration raids.
“Most of the people who went through what we’re portraying on screen are still here”
Schuster-Koloamatangi’s character, Will ‘Ilolahia, is the black sheep of his on-screen Tongan family and one of the original founding members of the PPP. The story develops while he tries to live up to his conservative, immigrant parents’ expectations.
The up-and-coming actor, who was just named one of TIFF’s Rising Stars this year, is not the only one who portrayed a real person in this drama series. The story follows many real-life characters; Melani Anae, played by Lealani Siaosi, being one of them. Anae, along with other original members of the PPP, were on set during production.
“It’s really easy in terms of actors for us to get to the source, because they’re still alive. Most of the people who went through what we’re portraying on screen are still here,” said Beulah Koale, who plays Ice.
Schuster-Koloamatangi admits he was scared to meet Will but recognizes it was a privilege to speak to an original Polynesian Panther. “He was a real chill and humble dude. He had so much to give as well in terms of information to make sure I portrayed his character well.”
When asked how the actors removed themselves from the dark storyline, Adams admitted they all went to her place and partied.
“We laugh and we sing, and enjoy being with each other,” she said.
The Panthers is the first New Zealand-made show to make its international debut at TlFF.
“I’m incredibly proud. It wasn’t totally surprising to me because you could feel the energy on set, the writing was excellent,” said Frankie Adams. “I’m just really happy that people are learning about it and this is a hidden part of our history that in New Zealand is missed if you aren’t Polynesian.”
When the cast was asked what they want people to take away from the show, the answers were the same across the board: cast more Polynesian talent.
“Hopefully this was a big enough stage for everyone to see that there is so much talent back home. Not just as a diversity cast,” expressed Adams. “We should be cast because we’re talented and hardworking. Hopefully this is going to showcase that for people in the industry.”
At the end of the interview, the cast had a chance to leave any final thoughts and closing words. After a few moments of silence, Siasi simply said: “Power to the people.”