A recent screening of the science-fiction action film, LUCY (2014) by French filmmaker Luc Besson has brought to mind a troubling question:
Why do so many White filmmakers avoid the subject of race in science-fiction films that explore the creation of the world, humanity and/or the universe?
Now the easy answer to what would appear to be the easiest question in the world might not be the best answer, but instead just the expression of a derogatory sentiment some people of color hold against Whites in general. For example, one could say that these White filmmakers avoid race in science-fiction films that feature an origin of man theory because they are racists themselves and therefore the resultant films only concentrate on Whites as the original race in these films. Or one could say that Whites prefer to use their own race as the normal screen though which human ontology (a fancy world for existence) should be measured. And still one could also say that many of the scientific theories regarding race are outdated pseudo-science and that these filmmakers decided to avoid the issue of race altogether and just use the White race as a default racial norm in their films that contain theories about the creation of the human race. And finally one could say that the issue of race is avoided out of deference to profit because the only race that Hollywood respects is the race to the bank.
If Whites are the largest global movie going audience and issues of race make that particular audience nervous and/or makes them stay away from the theatre, then the avoidance of race in science-fiction films that have an origin of man theory within the story is but a simple strategy to protect and insure the profits of any particularly expensive science-fiction film.
Yet, I don’t believe that any of these possible “answers” actually gets to the heart of the matter. A Science-fiction film that explores the origins of the human race as a central theme or tangential theme to the origin of the world and/or creation of the universe but avoids the issue of race only weakens the dramatic argument within the film. Or worse, the theories within the film are just patently unconvincing particularly if there are people of color or other races in the supporting cast of the film whose origin the theories within the film cannot and will not explain.
But I should back up here and talk about the film LUCY which inspired my contemplation of this racial conundrum in science-fiction film so please be advised of spoilers along the way if you haven’t seen the film yet.
Luc Besson’s new film tells the story of a woman named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who is tricked into being a drug courier by her boyfriend and in turn is forced to become a drug mule when a vicious Asian drug lord has a bag of a powerful new synthetic drug sewn into her abdomen. Unfortunately, due to the rough treatment she receives at the hands of her captors the bag bursts and the mysterious new drug enters into her bloodstream causing her to have continuously increasing access to the untapped mental powers of the human brain.
The central theme of the film is that if humans had access to more than the 10% of the mental capacity that they now use, we would be able to control our body’s involuntary functions, then other people’s bodies, matter and eventually even the flow of time. Along the way this action packed “mind blowing” concept film hits a few rough spots as it avoids the issue of race in ways that spark one’s curiosity as well as confound. For instance, Lucy is able to change her physical appearance by the power of her own mind. She changes her hair color from blond to brunette to avoid detection from the cops- but the film stops short at having her change her racial identity which as implied by the story and her other powers in human cell manipulation, language acquisition and knowledge she would have had the power to do.
This, to me, is a curious willingness to shortchange an idea on the part of the filmmaker Luc Besson who wrote, directed and edited the film after 10 years of research and development. The ability of Lucy to race shift would have elevated the concept of the film’s central theme of the untapped power of humanity to a broader cross-cultural model that would demonstrate that human intelligence and power is shared among different races, classes and genders, but is often hidden from our view because of our own preconceived perceptions, otherwise known as prejudices.
Another rough patch in the mind blowing concept of the film is that Lucy the character is also visually linked with Lucy the female hominid (human ancestor) that lived 3.2 million years ago on earth. The fossilized Lucy was discovered in Africa in the country of Ethiopia in 1974. In the climactic scene were the White female Lucy extends her hand to touch the finger of the living Lucy hominid – in a shot that recalls Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel- such a moment holds in abeyance the question of racial ontology even as it highlights the differences in skin complexion between the lily-white actor Scarlett Johansson as Lucy and the heavily made up, digitized and dark complexion of the Lucy hominid. Moreover, the film travels back in time showing the creation of the earth, the moon, galaxies and all the way back to the big bang- but the film never manages to hint at the genesis of racial distinctions and stratification among the human species.
And yet as if to tease a curious Black spectator such as myself, during the finale of the film, Lucy the White female does literally turn black as she absorbs all of the knowledge of the universe. As her body gradually disarticulates her skin color changes to black gradually from her toe to her head, but Besson avoids emphasizing the racial nature of this change by shooting the transfiguration in isolated close-up shots. We see a part of her leg, a part of her arm, a cheek and an eye socket, but not the entire wondrous change from White to Black as the knowledge of the universe is absorbed as Lucy accesses 100% of her brain’s mental capacity.
And so there you have it; the science-fiction action film LUCY avoids the question of race as it explores the creation of the universe, the world and Man as a species within it all.
Not such a big deal if we think of the film as an isolated artistic creation, but LUCY is only one of three recent films by established White auteurs whose central scientific theme is the creation Man, his world and the universe that avoids race, even as the films themselves contain a diverse racial cast. The other two recent films are Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS (2012) and Brian DePalma’s MISSION TO MARS (2000). Within each of these films the filmmakers posit an extra-terrestrial human origin theory, but avoid the issue of race which in turn weakens the dramatic argument within the film because the answers being given do not support the racial diversity in the casting- and in the human world at large. These films give their “origin of humanity” theories through a White racial screen which is untenable in a world as ethnically complex and racially diverse as our own.
Why must every story about the origin of intelligent life on Earth always insult our intelligence by not acknowledging or addressing issues of race?
Recall that the human origin story in PROMETHEUS which was given to us in the prologue that proceeds the main story is that a race of intelligent beings seeded Earth many thousands of years ago; that this original race of beings was almost twice the size of a human man, hairless and virtually colorless raises more questions concerning race than the prologue itself could ever hope to answer. Concerning the original human “engineers” in PROMETHEUS the pronounced musculature of their bodies and facial characteristics accentuates the White racial and aesthetic characteristics of a Greco-roman sculpture.
There is no question that the human origin story within PROMETHEUS excludes people of color for the sake of a fictional people without color.
By contrast, Brian DePalma’s MISSION TO MARS makes phenomenal leaps in the representation of a Black male in science-fiction by placing Don Cheadle in the major role of a Ph.D. holding scientist in command of the first manned expedition to Mars. “For the film’s optimistic dramatization of a color-blind meritocracy in the future we have to be sure that MISSION TO MARS is the most humane science-fiction film to come out in years.” (50, Slave Cinema) Yet even with the great leap in Black representation in this science-fiction film MISSION TO MARS, there is an equally high price to be paid as the origin of humanity theory put forth in this film conspicuously avoids the issue of racial origins and distinctions.
During the dvd chapter of the film called,” The Truth Revealed,” Mars is struck by an asteroid and the inhabitants flee to other worlds but one ship of Martians go to seed Earth which results in an explosion of life on earth millions of years ago. Yet the Martian figure seen in this origin story exudes no racial characteristics and the story provides no further suggestion or evidence concerning the racial diversity inherent within humanity that might pertain to those beings who seeded earth. It is an avoidance of race made even more shocking by the inclusion of Don Cheadle as Luke Graham as one Black among two Whites during this revelation sequence. Even though the three films in question contain racially inclusive casts, the origin stories concerning humanity efface the diversity on screen by using the White race as the default norm through which other races should see themselves.
So the new film LUCY continues the tradition of science-fiction films made by White and well established auteurs that explore the origin of humanity by positing alternative creation theories based on contemporary science that intentionally avoid the issue of the racial diversity within humanity.
Now we might consider the avoidance of race in the origin of humanity theories put forth in these science-fiction films as an extended form of structured absence. The concept of structured absence is itself an attempt to at avoiding race by having the White race represented by the dominant characters in a film, while omitting other races or relegating those non-White races to inconsequential supporting roles, if any. But as I have asserted elsewhere, structured absence is a double edged sword in that the absence of people of color in a science-fiction film like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) may have actually been a deliberate artistic strategy so that Kubrick’s critique against the ideals of White supremacy could be delivered directly “under the noses” of its intended target: those Whites who feel morally and intellectually superior to other races.(1) Just as the Hal 9000 computer admonishes us,” humans are not perfect.”
This conundrum of the avoidance of race has even cropped up in recent Bible-based films like SON OF GOD (2014), Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH (2014) and in the upcoming Ridley Scott film EXODUS: Gods and Kings scheduled for release later this year. In two recent articles by Sergio here at Shadow & Act on Noah and Exodus the White screenwriters while acknowledging the challenges of racial representation in contemporary Biblical cinematic representations, the resulting films do nothing to rectify the avoidance of race –particularly the Black race- in their images of historical and/or biblical figures presented through White actors.
The screenwriter of Noah, Ari Handel, even went so far as to say that the story in Noah functions,” at the level of myth, and as a mythical story the race of the individuals doesn’t matter.”(2) Yet, obviously, if what he says were true then Whites would not have to be the default race used in the representation of any religious story.
It could be concluded that representation of a mythic, religious or historical past through a White racial screen as an accepted norm by White screenwriters and filmmakers is but a passive form of White supremacy upheld in cinematic narration not just for the sake of profit but for the continuation of lies against humanity that ultimately sustain more racial divisions than they efface.
Returning to the original question: Why do so many White filmmakers avoid the subject of race in science-fiction films that explore the creation of the world, humanity and/or the universe?
A better and more provocative short answer could be that these White filmmakers aren’t avoiding the subject of race, but instead they are unconsciously trying to retain the supremacy of Whiteness by attaching the White race to an alien super-sophisticated culture. That is to say, in the face of continuing and overwhelming evidence of other indigenous civilizations of people of color around the globe that were actually far advanced technologically, morally, and artistically than Whites were for thousands of years- the only hope of re-establishing White supremacy in an origin of humanity theory is to have intelligent aliens seed earth and create Whites who become the measure of intelligence to which all other races must submit. The Nubian, Mayan, Incan, Aboriginal, Amerindian and other known and as yet unknown civilizations that were once thought of as primitive by European Whites are now through less prejudicial anthropological research and evidence proving to have been far superior to the European civilizations at the same point in time and in some cases even today.
We must keep in mind that the Americas were not conquered by the brute force and superior intelligence of European Whites, but instead by the fatal effects of the communicable diseases Whites unwittingly brought with them on their person. As James W. Loewen asserts,” The Europeans’ advantages in military and social technology might have enabled them to dominate the Americas, as they eventually dominated China, India, Indonesia, and Africa, but not to “settle” the hemisphere. For that, the plague was required. Thus, apart from the European (and African) invasion itself, the pestilence is surely the most important event in the history of America.”(3)
I’m suggesting that by attaching the origin of “White” people to an alien super-sophisticated culture, White filmmakers can retain a semblance of racial superiority within the origin of Man theories which omit people of color that we have been seeing in recent science-fiction films such as MISSION TO MARS, PROMETHEUS and LUCY.
LUCY, while it is an action science-fiction narrative that empowers a White female character it does so at the expense of reducing the credibility and the agency of the educated Black male character of Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) who spends much of the second half of the film with his mouth half open in awe. In fact after establishing Professor Norman as the leading researcher in Brain Neuro-science, Lucy first comes to him for assistance, but quickly surpasses him in thought, action and agency as the film progresses. Moreover, it is Lucy who has the power to stop, speed up and reverse time back to the origins of the universe and provide information regarding the destiny of man. Even though she hands this information to Professor Norman in the form of the ultimate universal USB device, the credit is still hers to claim. The ubiquity of her power is expressed in a line that she sends as a text to a police detective after she has left her physical body: “I am everywhere.”
Thus, God is a she and she is God. That “she” just happens to be White could possibly disturb only a minority of viewers…
Perhaps the only remedy for this omission of the Black race from the origin of Man theories within current science-fiction films is for a Black filmmaker to posit an alternative origin of Man theory in a Black science-fiction film. Now, no one is asking for a demonstration of the Melanin Theory or even a theory of Black racial superiority, but instead perhaps an alternative interpretation of the “White” origin of Man theory.
If as Charles S. Finch asserts,”…Africa is the only continent where there is evidence, in unbroken chronological sequence, of all the stages in the development of man,” then perhaps Whites were the refuse, the unwanted of an alien super-sophisticated culture. (4) Like the penal colonies established in Australia by the British Empire, could it be that Whites were seeded upon Earth as a punishment for their transgressions within an alien super-sophisticated culture? A tantalizing yet no less speculative version of an origin of Man theory than what we are seeing today that could account for the spread of capitalism, the destruction of indigenous cultures by communicable diseases and the moral corruption and human trafficking that resulted in the contact between Europe and the New World.
Alternatively, it could be that like the best ideas, Man originated from several diverse sources simultaneously on the Pangaean super continent and thus racial differences did not become apparent until distinct cultures and prejudices were established.
One great film by a White filmmaker that does challenge race avoidance in a science-fiction film and indirectly posits an alternative origin of man theory is John Sayles independent film THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1984). “John Sayles’ THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET suggests a grand thematic metaphor of African-American alienation from the American dream by presenting an African-American underclass as literal aliens toiling away at menial jobs or homeless while hiding their true identity from normal [White] society.” (45, Slave Cinema)
The point here upon which we shall conclude is that we must cultivate the daring Black filmmakers who are willing to put forth an alternative origin of Man theory. Whether that filmmaker uses structured absence to only concentrate on the origin of people of color or decides to be inclusive and show the races in union during the origin of Man, the door can be opened to develop and deploy origin of Man theories that do not have to avoid race and/or only use the White race as the default norm through which all other races must be obscured.
1) See the article Black Film Theory: Fighting the Illusions of White Supremacy in Cinematic Narration Part 3. http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/black-film-theory-part-3-subversion-liberation-from-the-illusions-of-white-supremacy-in-cinematic-narration
3)Pg. 83 of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, Simon & Schuster, New York: 1995.
4) Page 289, “Race and Evolution in Prehistory,” by Charles S. Finch in African Presence in Early Europe edited by Ivan Van Sertima, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick: 1985.
Andre Seewood is the author of "SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film." Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com here.