There’s an interesting article over at Shadow and Act titled, “Freeing (Black) Science Fiction From the Chains of Race.” In it, author, Andre Seewood posits that “placing the racial frame upon the science fiction/fantasy/or futurist work of African-Americans hastily discard[s] the genuine scientific, fantasy or futurist aspects of the work, which in turn, weakens and /or perverts the author’s original intent.” Basically, he believes the racial interpretations black people apply to science fiction are a detriment to our contribution to science fiction. As I write this, I hope I’m interpreting his essay correctly because I have a lot of problems with it.
Seewood begins by talking about Octavia Butlers, Bloodchild. It’s a great example to begin his essay. He quickly makes the point that Butler never intended her novel to have anything to do with race but many people viewed it as such. He believes that using race to interpret Bloodchild perverts its original intention. Though I’m not sure if I believe him, it is a fair point. It made me want to keep reading, but as soon as he starts to apply his ideas to film it begins to read like one of those bad time travel movies. You know, the one’s that move quickly through horrible plot holes thinking the audience won’t care of won’t notice through all of the quick editing and loud music.
Fear of a Black Planet
First off, Seewood chooses some really awful examples. For example, he criticizes people for reading Planet of the Apes (1968) as a “dense racial allegory” as opposed to an examination of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. It really irks me that my man is using the original Planet of the Apes – a movie arguably out of date — as opposed to the two most recent films. By ignoring the most recent contributions to the franchise Seewood is hiding his ideas behind a movie that people either haven’t seen or can’t remember. The last two films would have been more challenging and more rewarding if he could make them applicable.
Clearly, the Tim Burton remake with Mark Wahlberg is speaking to the racial undertones of the original. The surprise ending made that completely obvious, however, it was Rise of the Planet of the Apes that finally got the story right by making the ape, Ceaser, the protagonist. After being placed in a lab with other apes and gorillas who are tortured and experimented on — which clearly recalls American slavery, the horrible Tuskegee Syphilis experiments and today’s Prison Industrial Complex — Caeser breaks them out and they stage a massive revolt. I’m sure Ed Guerrero would agree that such a revolt is reminiscent to the Watts riots of 1965, the LA riots following the Rodney King case in 1992, or the riots that will happen if George Zimmerman is found innocent for killing Trayvon Martin (you heard it here).
In regards to Seewod’s focus on the idea that humans evolved from monkeys, I can see how this idea alone would make for an interesting plot, however Charles Darwin was very explicit in his connection of black people and apes.
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes… will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla [Descent of Man].
Further, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as it pertained to black people was so influential, its effect so profound that this belief still exists.
Crude historical depictions of African Americans as ape-like may have disappeared from mainstream U.S. culture, but research presented in a new paper by psychologists at Stanford, Pennsylvania State University and the University of California-Berkeley reveals that many Americans subconsciously associate blacks with apes.
The paper, “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequences,” is the result of a series of six previously unpublished studies conducted by Jennifer Eberhardt, Pennsylvania State University psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff (the lead author and a former student of Eberhardt’s) and Matthew C. Jackson and Melissa J. Williams, graduate students at Penn State and Berkeley, respectively [Science Blog].
I sympathize with Seewood’s desire for a movie that explores Darwin’s theory in a way that doesn’t speak to racial stereotypes. I believe that type of movie is possible and it would be fun to watch. Planet of the Apes is not that movie. And, as we’ve seen with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the racial allegories hidden in the story make for a more interesting movie.
Seewood’s next example was Gremlins and Gremlins 2. Again, I believe these movies are out of date and he could have used some more recent examples to make his point. I’m not saying he would have been any more right in his assumption, but it would be interesting to explore his ideas with more movies made in the 21st century. Instead, he uses the well-known Spielberg franchise to criticize people for seeing racial commentary in the “structured absence” of black people. As he puts it:
[U]se any other non-white race, animal, or object within your film as a symbol of minority otherness and then “interpret” a racial commentary where you had not intended such a commentary to exist.
His aim to expose what he believes is a Catch 22. As Seewood puts it, if you omit black people from a movie like Gremlins, then a person can interpret the creatures in that film as metaphors for non-white people. However, if you cast a black person in a major role (he briefly mentions Adilifu Nama analysis of Will Smith in I, Robot) they are considered a token character. All of the above is bad, so focus more on the science of the science fiction and problem solved.
I’ll admit to being very disappointed in the way Seewood was trying to provide evidence to what my be a fresh way to look at the future of science fiction. He omits some very important details from his references. The Gremlins in question are not racial metaphors because it is convenient for the critic. After the bar scene in the first film – a scene that Ed Guerrero masterfully dissects in “Framing Blackness” — the filmmaker makes it impossible to see them as anything else but black caricatures. Take a look at this YouTube clip and tell me how many stereotypes you see. I can personally attest to the break-dancing Gremlin, the jazz-loving Gremlin, the stick up kid Gremlin, and the gambling Gremlins. When you view this scene and consider the attack of the gremlins are happening in a city devoid of any non-white characters, it isn’t a stretch to start making other connections.
This criticism is important because it reveals the weakness of the film and discussing these weaknesses — one can hope — make for better movies. As a kid, I was excited to see movies like Planet of the Apes and Gremlins. The idea that our world was being taken over by a foreign entity was the draw. What are we going to do to stop them? That was exciting. But, I quickly realized there were no we in these movies. We never did anything. The absence of non-white people in a story that affects so many people in a country known for its diversity? Regretfully, this speaks louder than any interesting scientific ideas you may be trying to explore.
Images Have a History
These images have a history and because they are so easy to recognize they distract from anything interesting you may be trying to say. This is what is holding us back. Most people are not obsessed with race and I would bet that people go to the movies to get away from such things. But, if you’re a storyteller there is a certain cultural awareness that you must have because that is your audience. There is nothing worse than spending money on a movie that implies a connection between black people and some ugly, evil creatures terrorizing a town of white people. If a good movie is about creating the illusion of a real world these scenes yank us from the illusion.
Evan Narcisse is a writer I really dig. He writes a lot about the images of black people in science fiction. He has a great line that I borrow all of the time: “if you’re not seeing a black guy, then you’re not seeing all of me. And if you’re seeing just a black guy, you’re not seeing all of me.” I think a person’s ability to understand how this applies to everyone is essential for good storytelling. Filmmakers have to get past that before we can begin to see the science in science fiction speak for itself.