This article is about Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction film, INTERSTELLAR, but to get to the subject of the film I have to detour through the wormhole of a White supremacist tactic as it is played out in real life to lay the foundation for my argument about how this same White supremacist tactic is played out in cinematic space with regard to many of the Black characters that we see in White films.
When unarmed 18 year old Black male, Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson Missouri on August 9th of 2014 by White police officer Darren Wilson, the White officer’s version of the tragic event was immediately disseminated though the media by various sources including the Ferguson police department. “According to the preliminary police account, which was included in the autopsy report, the confrontation began when Wilson spotted Brown and a friend walking in the street: Wilson “observed the two individuals, he requested that they get out of the roadway. The deceased became belligerent towards Officer Wilson. “As Officer Wilson attempted to exit out of his patrol vehicle the deceased pushed his door shut and began to struggle with Officer Wilson, during the struggle the Officers weapon was un-holstered. The weapon discharged during the struggle.
“The deceased then ran down the roadway. Officer Wilson then began to chase the deceased. As he was giving chase to the deceased, the deceased turned around and ran towards Officer Wilson. “Officer Wilson had his service weapon drawn, as the deceased began to run towards him, he discharged his service weapon several times.” (1)
Yet according to 22 year old Black male, Dorian Johnson, the friend who was walking with Brown at the time of the murder: “Johnson said Wilson was the aggressor, ordering the two to get out of the street and confronting them again when they said they were near Johnson’s apartment. Johnson said Wilson, still in his cruiser, grabbed Brown by the neck and, as Brown tried to pull away, threatened to shoot. Then he fired. Brown fled as Wilson shot multiple times, including, Johnson said, appearing to strike Brown in the back before he turned to surrender and was shot again.”(2)
The immediate contradictions within the two different versions of the events do little to offset the suspicion believed by many Whites and Blacks alike that the police officer’s version is the “authentic” version. What gives Wilson’s version of the events a certain credence is that within his version, as well as the “leaked” store surveillance video of Michael Brown allegedly stealing a box of cigars, it is Michael Brown who is initially in the wrong by dint of the fact that he is a Black male and all Black males must be guilty of something in a society built on White supremacy such as ours. Thus a “trick” narrative is authenticated which concludes that Michael Brown must’ve reached for Officer Wilson’s gun because he already had stolen a box of cigars. One alleged wrong action automatically authenticates another alleged wrong action.
The fallacy of a “trick” narrative is that it almost always justifies and absolves the actions of the White person who murders a Black person, but rarely the actions of the Black person who was murdered.
But more than this, the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, John Crawford III in Ohio, Renisha McBride in Dearborn Heights Michigan, Trayvon Martin in Florida and countless other Blacks around the country and throughout the centuries reveals to us that one of the central conventions of White supremacy rests on the concept of the fungibility of Blackness. Fungibility is an economic concept related to the ease of exchange and replacement of a good or property that writer Frank B. Wilderson III asserts is a constituent element of Slavery and,” connotes an ontological status for Blackness.” (3)
In short, a Black life is less valuable than a White life and a Black life is wholly exchangeable and replaceable with other Black lives that are all equally of lesser value than White lives in a White supremacist moral and ideological context. This is why it never really mattered who actually stole a chicken (or a box of cigars) because any Black male could be lynched for the accusation as a token punishment to maintain White control and dominance of the Black populace.
From the horrors of the Middle Passage, to the rape of Black women by White slave masters, to the lynching of Blacks for little more than an accusation and an excuse to have a picnic, to today’s profiling and shooting of Blacks we can see that fungibility is a key convention in the maintenance of a White supremacist state and the assertion of power across those replaceable and exchangeable Black bodies within that state. It literally means that Whites have the option of absolving themselves for not having empathy for Blacks because one Black is just as worthless as another Black. It means that Michael Brown was probably never going to grow up to be much in a White supremacist structure anyway so why hold a White officer accountable for his death? His life was fungible; his life was forgettable, so there is no need to feel any empathy nor act on any sympathetic impulse towards him, his family or his kind.
Now to extend this concept of the fungibility of Blackness as a conventional White supremacist tactic into the context of the film INTERSTELLAR by Christopher Nolan we must first narrowly define what is meant by the term White film. My standard definition bears repeating here: A White film is a film with at least one White actor in the lead or co-lead role and Black or other ethnicities in supporting or non-influential roles where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the White character(s).
This definition of a White film is indeed a corollary or a mirror image of a White supremacist context as it operates in real life, whether or not we replace the word narrative with judicial system, merit system, medical system etc, et al. So it can be said that a White film as narrowly defined here is but a representation of a White supremacist context which uses entertainment to deliver a consistent ideological message of superior White racial value and agency.
It can also be asserted that a Black character’s life in a White film is less valuable than a White character’s life in a White film by dint of the fact that the narrative must resolve itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the White character(s).
Therefore, it stands to reason that a Black character in a White film is fungible: exchangeable and replaceable, dramatically worthless and suspect- the same as an actual Black person is in a White supremacist context.
It just so happens that there are two Black characters in INTERSTELLAR, a film about a Nasa space mission to save the entire human race from extinction.
David Oyelowo makes a brief appearance as a school principal whose authority is curtly dismissed by the main character Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). As the principal explains that Cooper’s son, although smart, he is not smart enough to gain any academic preference that used to be reserved for Whites before the environmental catastrophe that has strickened Earth’s food supply, Cooper cuts him off and turns his attention to a White teacher and her disciplinary concerns for Cooper’s young daughter. As non-influential roles for Black characters go in White films there is nothing out of the ordinary or unexpected here. What is the dramatic consequence of a Black school principal’s authority when the fate of the world is at stake?
As David Oyelowo’s character disappears from the story, David Gyasi is another Black actor who reappears in the middle of the film to play the role of a fellow astronaut and physicist named,” Romilly”. And yet even more so than Oyelowo’s school principal character, the character of Romilly exists as a castrated Black token figure in that he has no family, no friends nor loved ones to cry over his prolonged absence from Earth. And it can’t be any kind of a spoiler to those of us who are accustomed to seeing Science-Fiction and/or Horror films that a Black character is most often killed off before the end of the film. Interstellar, for all of its overblown speculative science “mumbo jumbo” concerning five dimensional beings, follows the convention of killing the token Black character with ruthlessly predictable precision.
Not only is Romilly murdered in a fiery explosion caused by another White astronaut (Matt Damon is a surprise cameo), but none of the characters mourn the loss. And as weakly developed as the Romilly character is, why should they?
Many otherwise “hip” White filmmakers like Nolan are casting Blacks or minorities in their White films as a means of adding some racial diversity to their images while luring minorities to contribute to their box office totals. But by denying these Black characters the dramatic agency to effectively change, resolve or fully participate in the dramatic circumstances these Black characters are mere tokens marked for death as the White sci-fi or horror film progresses to its resolution that concerns itself solely with the White character(s).
The Black character of Romilly in Interstellar represents a new low in Black tokenism in White films because his character was never really necessary to the mission, nor the resolution of the circumstances in the story.
Indeed, actor David Gyasi walks around through all of his scenes with the hangdog expression of a character waiting to die. Some might call this consistent dire expression on Gyasi’s face great direction by Christopher Nolen, but I am more inclined to see this as inattentive direction and poor character development given that Romilly is: 1) an isolated character with no friends, family, loved ones; 2) unnecessary to the overall structure and intention of the film’s plot.
Romilly and the Black school principal character that he replaced are two cinematic examples of the fungibility of Blackness in the cinematic space of a White film. As racial tokens these isolated and detached characters are simply tools to augment White superiority or foils to White privilege as the White film wherein which they appear resolves itself by paying exclusive attention to the White characters and little to no attention to the Black characters as they have been either rendered ineffectual or unceremoniously killed off.
Casting Blacks or minorities in a White film without giving those characters the dramatic agency to change, resolve or fully participate in the circumstances is tokenism of the lowest caliber which upholds a racial hierarchy that represents a White supremacist ideal.
Yet curiously the murder or death of a Black character in a White sci-fi or horror film when in the hands of White filmmakers who are more critical of the status quo, the ideals of White supremacy and/or the mendacious foundations of the dominant ideology can draw attention to the hypocrisy of racial hierarchies. For example, in George Romero’s 1968 masterpiece Night of The Living Dead,” The zombification of White America and the last battle inside of a house divided against itself with a lone African-American male struggling to keep the strangers together stands as a grand thematic metaphor for the racial turmoil and the civil rights struggle happening throughout the 1960’s and particularly in 1968, the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination.(4)”
The original Night of the Living Dead is arguably the first film by an American filmmaker to challenge the conventional White supremacist tactic of killing a Black man by placing it at the end of the story in such a way that the threshold for empathy regarding the murder of the Black character could be lowered for even the most racially naïve White viewer. Of course the “over night” success of the film contributed to the cliché of killing off a Black character in later sci-fi and horror films. Now, less critical White filmmakers like Christopher Nolan kill off token Black characters far earlier than the resolution of the story to support an illusion of White racial superiority as it is embodied in the successful actions of a White hero/heroine that concludes a White film.
Another White filmmaker who is critical of the status quo and who used the death of a Black character as a means of questioning the notion of White superiority is John Carpenter. His 1982 sci-fi masterpiece, The Thing, ends with White character R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and the Black character Childs (Keith David) sharing a last drink before freezing to death outside of a blown up Antarctic science station. This ending, while tragic, is the nihilistic conclusion to the great racial power struggle that had been going on between the two characters when an alien that replicates what it kills had invaded their station. Here the two characters decide that it is better to freeze to death to save the world rather than kill each other to prove a superiority that would be a moot point.
In both of these classic films NOTLD and The Thing, the determining factor which allows us to discern a token Black character from a fully realized Black character is the degree of agency the Black characters possess within the narrative. The Black characters in these classic films exert an equal or higher degree of agency vis-a-vis the White characters throughout the narrative which allows us to determine that they are not tokens in a White film but fully realized characters in a film.
It could be that the only way to destroy the narrow definition of a White film is to not allow the film to resolve itself solely upon the emotional and dramatic circumstances of the White characters.
Returning our attention to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, the film itself traffics in facile Black tokenism during the course of its narrative, but ends on a point of near complete structured absence; that is to say that the final act of the film effectively eliminates all minorities from its image of a highly advanced fifth dimensional off-Earth future. Save for a few brief pre-recorded documentary images showing a few minorities speaking about Earth’s past, Cooper Station, the artificially constructed world created for the returning astronaut Cooper by his genius daughter, is inhabited almost exclusively by Whites. The ending of the film empathically re-establishes and rejuvenates the illusion of White power, privilege and Black exclusion that had existed before the Earth had been devastated by environmental blight at the beginning of the film. The serenity of this future world is built upon the exclusion of Blacks and people of color beyond the hyper-realized walls of a gated community.
After the murder of Romilly it should become quite clear to all but the most naïve of viewers that the mission in Interstellar was not to save the entire human race in all of its God given diversity, richness and complexity- but instead to exclude as many Blacks, minorities and genetic undesirables from its suggested future world so that Whites can retain the illusion of numerical and moral superiority. It is in this way that Interstellar delivers and upholds the consistent message of White supremacy gilded in the form of entertainment.
The film Interstellar has revealed to us that Christopher Nolan has squandered all of the promise he had shown in his innovative early films like 1998’s The Following and 2000’s Memento in exchange for the status quo ideals of White power and privilege so that he can make empty big budgeted films that say very little very loudly and challenge the ideas of very few with even less.
- Pg. 14, in Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, Duke University Press, 2010.
- Pg. 42, Slave Cinema: The Crisis of the African-American in Film 2nd Ed. by Andre Seewood, 2011.