*I just wanted to elaborate on this article, that I posted earlier in the year, on the topic of how race is depicted in SFF genre films and shows. No matter how well meaning the filmmakers may be, their blind spot is almost always racial in nature, and it is impossible to completely and fully tell certain narratives, if the creators refuse to even look in the direction of race. I don’t know if it’s intentional, or deliberate, but one of the failures of modern SFF cinema is an inability to approach the subject of racism from an honest perspective, when these creators are White. This is why creators like Jordan Peele, Ava Duverney, John Cho, and even Rod Serling are so important. They did not (do not) ignore race as a factor in the stories they are (were) trying to tell.
Why Don’t Dystopias Know How to Talk About Race?
————Fantasy novelist Daniel José Older sees the problem as a failure of imagination and craft. “I find it very telling how little these worlds that are so much about power and oppression and ways of resistance also magically somehow have solved race,” he said. “On the one hand it’s a truth failure in the sense of it doesn’t feel real to anyone who knows about the lasting power of racism and to anyone who is paying attention to the world today. And it’s a craft failure in that it is a tremendous missed opportunity to develop the world more deeply.”
* I’ve been seeing an increasing number of SciFi shows where Blacks, and other minorities, are being cast as the oppressors of White protagonists. We’re not arguing that PoC can’t work for oppressive systems, because plenty of them do. And we’re not arguing that PoC cannot discriminate against White people.Yes, we know PoC can be bigots (towards other PoC, mostly) but that’s not what is being discussed here.
We’re talking about the casting of Black people, particularly, dark skinned, Black women, as virulently racist bigots, which is starting to become a trope. From Teen Wolf, to The Gifted, to Heroes Reborn, I think the White male writers who create these shows are starting to get a little too comfortable with this idea.
They don’t seem comfortable with depicting actual racism towards PoC by White people, and they continue to cast White actors as the oppressed minorities in these racial allegories (like The Handmaid’s Tale). It’s especially galling in a racism/slavery allegory, to not only erase the existence of PoC, who are actually experiencing what is being depicted onscreen, in the real world, but to cast them in the roles of the oppressors, and I’m not here for it. I’m also not here for White Writers stealing the narratives of oppressed people of color, but then NOT including any of those oppressed people in the story. (I touched on this briefly in my review of The Gifted.)
One of the major reasons I stopped watching Heroes Reborn wasn’t just because of its lackluster, badly written plot, but because a Black woman was cast as a virulently nasty, hardline racist, who was willing to kill children, and the children they showed her killing, were White. This is the same plotline used in the final season of Teen Wolf, where a Black woman is seen killing and sometimes torturing White teens, and again, in the show The Gifted, you have a brown-skin man, of indeterminate race, spouting racist jargon against the White protagonists of the show, and hunting and arresting White kids. All of these shows steal the narrative of Black and Brown people being killed (shot, tortured, and abused) by people in positions of authority, but does not include any of these Brown people in the story that’s being told. Instead, casting White actors in roles that real PoC actually live out.
The Gifted is even more annoying because there are PoC on the show who are members of the oppressed minority, but we don’t get to see their stories, sympathize with them, or understand what their lives were like. We do get to see them be bravely tortured by the government, which sends the message that not only are our stories available for consumption, but the pain and degradation of PoC is as well.
Just Like A Caucasian
How Sci-Fi and Fantasy Television Shows Always Get Racism Wrong.
**Reprinting my review of The Gifted, (which I wrote before I saw this article)
I’m simply not in the mood for this show, and I’m fed up with this type of plot, now. It’s loosely based on some of the X-Men and New Mutants comic books, in that it has some Sentinel plotline, and some of the characters from those groups. Stephen Moyer stars as a lawyer who used to prosecute mutant criminals, and the father of two young mutants, now on the run from the government, which is rounding up mutants and imprisoning them in scientific camps.
I tried watching the first episodes, and while I like a couple of the characters, the show is simply not compelling enough to keep me watching it every week. The characters have the usual teenage angst, with superpowers, that made me dislike the First X-Men movie. Blink is a teenager who can teleport by creating portals, and Thunderbird, who is Native American, is a kind of tracker of people and things. I’m dismayed that the show used the Native American tracker stereotype, as that’s nothing like Thunderbird’s actual powers in the books, which consists of speed and strength.
And I’m just not here for yet another plotline of people with superpowers being rounded up and used by the government. This seems to be the only plotline they can come up with for superpowered characters, especially on TV, and once again, there is only the focus on how this affects White, suburban, middle-class families.
Just like with the show Heroes, there is no focus on how the discovery of superpowers would affect any marginalized communities, something I would consider much more entertaining, and which the show Cleverman handled with a certain amount of depth. As I complained about before, we keep getting stories about middle-class White characters being subjected to the same oppressions that have been visited on marginalized communities. This show would have had far more depth and been much more interesting if it had been set in the G/L community, or the Black and Latinx communities, in which this type of interment is already occurring.
In the forties, the Japanese were rounded up in internment camps because they were considered a danger to the US, and later, authorities used to raid the gay and lesbian communities and lock them in jails with the full force of legal authority behind them. Today, its immigration officials grabbing random Brown people out of their homes, and locking them up on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. What do you want to bet that none of these things will be addressed in yet another show where we see average White people being treated in the same manner?
*For further reading check out Malikali’s article on The Ellison Test. It’s great reading, and available on Medium.com, (which I can’t link to here.)
The Ellison Test: The litmus test for diversity.
Another way that TV and movies get racism wrong is the constant message, and I’m not certain this is intentional, is the idea that the people being oppressed actually are powerful and dangerous and need to be controlled. So, while Hollywood steals the narratives of PoC to sell their oppression stories of White people, they paradoxically send the message that the oppression is also deserved. This is what went wrong with the movie Zootopia. Zootopia made some excellent points about discrimination, but the animals being discriminated against are all powerful animals that traditionally eat other animals. There’s also the setup that in the past these animals did indeed eat the lesser animals, and so deserve persecution and fear. So Zootopia is trying to tell a story condemning the discrimination and persecution of others is wrong, it reinforces the idea that the ones being persecuted deserved to be feared and hated.
This is also the same problem I ran into with the X-Men and Mutant hysteria plotlines of The Gifted. The persecuted minority are actually exceptionally powerful beings, and actually can destroy human life, and even the entire world, which goes against the racism metaphor the stories are trying to establish, and defeats the anti-discrimination message that’s being touted.
One story that does get the themes mostly correct is the graphic novel called Maus by Art Spiegelman, in which the Jewish people are represented as helpless prey animals being harmed by cats. The cats are depicted as Nazis.
How Zootopia Gets Its Own Point Exactly Backwards
———–The movie starts with a history of the world, explaining that while predators used to be uncontrollably violent, they have since been civilized and can now live among prey animals, which also means behaving like prey animals (prey animals aren’t asked to accommodate their behavior for predators at all). Because in Zootopia there’s a right way to live and a wrong way to live, and some animals are — in the context of this movie — biologically programmed to live wrong. They have to be corrected in order to fit in with proper, civilized society.
Zootopia wants to teach kids about prejudice. Is it accidentally sending the wrong message?
————–The most natural line to draw between the two is that Zootopia‘s predators stand in for black men in our world, and one needs only look at the resurfacing of Hillary Clinton’s “superpredators” clip from the ’90s to know why that’s potentially inflammatory territory.
But all of this pales in comparison to the fact that when you scrutinize Zootopia‘s core metaphor for even a second, it struggles to make sense on a literal level. Yes, the film’s message is that Judy learns to trust Nick, even though he’s predator and she’s prey. But on some other level, we all know that an actual rabbit is right to be afraid of an actual fox — and that muddies the movie’s message considerably.
Yes, even Bladerunner manages to fall into this same trap of presenting a persecuted minority as being incredibly physically powerful and smarter than the humans hunting them.
Blade Runner’s source material says more about modern politics than the movie does
———-The police in Do Androids Dream…? are merciless, unstoppable android killers. Their victims, in contrast, are remarkably vulnerable and weak. In the film, the replicants have enhanced reflexes, super-strength, and tremendous intelligence. Part of the reason Deckard evokes sympathy is that he’s clearly overmatched. Replicants may not deserve to be murdered, but they are terrifyingly powerful and dangerous. Roy, howling his shirtless way through an abandoned building at the end of the film, is an atavistic, gothic terror. The androids in Blade Runner are dangerous and threatening when provoked — which is how Darren Wilson saw Michael Brown, and the excuse most often given by police who kill unarmed black civilians.
*The next 3 articles are essays on how the new Bladerunner movie tackles the narratives of racism, assimilation, inclusion, and persecution. Or how they actually don’t.
‘Blade Runner 2049’: The Deckard Question Matters More Than You Think
Whether Harison Ford’s character is a replicant has far-reaching implications for the film series — and for what it says about our own society.
Race and Blade Runner 2049
The only black people in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner are extras. The replicants are all white, and the city of Los Angeles is basically an unmixed population of whites and Asians. The Asians live on the streets or work in small shops. Whites rule the LAPD (all that’s left of the city’s government) and biotech corporations. Whites are also the slaves manufactured by Tyrell Corporation. There are no black, Mexican, or Asian replicants. And the leader of the rebel replicants is a very Aryan Roy Batty. Replicants, however, are, according to Rick Deckard’s voiceover, called “skin jobs,” which is equivalent to calling black people “niggers.” So, Blade Runner is about a slave revolt. And what do the slaves want? Freedom? No. They want more life, which, to be fair, is another kind of freedom. As the 20th century British philosopher Alfred Whitehead put it: “Life is a bid for freedom.”
————-I watched Blade Runner for the first time this week. Since I have apparently been living in a cave for the past few decades, I thought that Blade Runner was kind of like Tron but with more Harrison Ford, and less neon, and maybe a few more tricky questions about What Is The Nature Of Man.
That is the movie I was expecting.
That is not the movie I saw.
*It is far easier for White audiences to watch allegories about racism, than it is for them to actually tackle the subject head-on in their daily lives. Just as it seems easier for White filmmakers to propose the idea that persecution of minorities is wrong, while engaging in erasure and whitewashing in their films on the subject.
*There has been some discussion on Tumblr of The Empathy Gap, to explain the woobification of White villains in fandom, vs the vilification of Black and Brown villains, and even characters of color that are the stars and protagonists in the narrative. Want to know more, then read on:
Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies
Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies
*This is a perfect example of what we mean by implicit bias in filmmaking. I know the director of this movie, James Mangold, is not some die-hard ,card carrying, member of the alt-right, or KKK. Nevertheless a critical look at his films reveals his own blindspot when it comes to the subject of race. Because the directors are White males, living in America, they have a tendency to reproduce narratives of race that have always prevailed in films, without much examination. I’m sure it never occurred to Mangold that it would be difficult for PoC to watch a movie in which am entire Black family is brutally murdered by vigilante members of the state. It certainly did not occur to him how such images would impact our watching of the film, given the status of American race relations today. (The same blindspot is evident in the Netflix show, Daredevil, and Mangold’s last Wolverine film, which was set in Japan.)
The Thoughtless Diversity of Logan
————– Let’s linger on that last point for a second. In Logan, an entire black family gets slaughtered onscreen. This is a black family who we already see terrorized by racist hicks for refusing to move off their farmland. We are shown that they are at the mercy of these white folks to maintain basic amenities like running water. We also see that they are often terrorized by these men WITH GUNS on what seems to be a daily basis.
*I liked this rather tongue-in-cheek essay on why Black people don’t attract ghosts or hauntings.
White Fright; Or, Why Are There No Black People in Haunted House Movies?
*And another tongue in cheek piece on the expectations that Black people should die in Horror movies, because that’s the tradition, and how hard it can be getting used to watching them survive these movies sometimes.
The Black Die Young: The Internal Struggle of a Black Horror Movie Fan
——–I have a secret passion; the less addicted of you might call it an addiction. I like to watch. I rent base, filthy movies and slip them into brown paper bags so no one can tell. I sit alone in seedy, near-empty theaters, pleasuring myself with this trash. I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone about my weakness, although my wife has caught me watching a time or two (“It’s a documentary!” is my standard excuse; she’s since cancelled the Discovery Channel.). But now I’m ready to step out of the shadows and proclaim loudly, I am a black man… and I love horror movies.
*Yeah, we’re looking at you Star Wars!
Every Galaxy Needs More Than Three People of Color
———When people of color do appear in science fiction, it’s often as sidekicks or advisers. Black characters are likely to die quickly and are unlikely to ever interact with any other black characters, since many galaxies seem to contain only about three black people. That lack of representation makes it hard for people of color to imagine that their writing will ever find a home in the genre.
*I was going to finish up my review of Bladerunner 2049 with a critique of the films technical and philosophical aspects, but I think I’ll post a list of other critical apporaches to the movie, and post my viewpoint as a followup.