Imagine a film in which a jive-talking fool, with a childlike inability to understand basic technology, and who is, despite possessing a natural sense of rhythm, hilariously clumsy, provides the comic relief. And in which a hook-nosed, slave-owning, money-grubbing Jew is so careless of the value of life that he loses a small boy in a bet. And in which the villains are a bunch of unscrupulous and murderous lisping Japanese who are by turns vicious and cowardly. This isn’t some Nazi propaganda film, or even a D.W. Griffith epic admired because of its place in cinema history despite its deplorable antebellum politics. No. This is Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999).
In a way, the film’s very awfulness has gone some way to protect it from the devastating critique it so richly deserves. It seems ungenerous to castigate George Lucas and his many creative collaborators as racist, when there are so many juicier crimes against cinematic humanity with which to convict him (see Pinkett’s review at www.redlettermedia.com and redeem wasted hours by enjoying a hilarious dissection of the prequel trilogy). But then again, Lucas does have form: his Leni Riefenstahl celebrations at the end of Star Wars, the sore-thumb tokenism of Lando Calrissian in the second film and the concluding, black voice, black helmet, white face of Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Some of his best friends are no doubt Calrissians, but this fecklessness is not an isolated case for George, nor for science fiction as a genre.
Science fiction has the tendency to show up the limits of the imagination starkly. All those invented Tomorrow’s Worlds can’t help but look like cut-and-paste jobs from existing worlds; 2001 looks like 1969, 1984 like 1948, Metropolis like New York and Blade Runner is set in a still recognisable Los Angeles via Tokyo. So when it comes to aliens, it is hardly a surprise that writers and directors start flicking through back copies of National Geographic to find some inspiration. The Alien is rarely alien (except perhaps for Alien); it’s simply other. The Romulans are ancient Romans, wookies are walking dogs, Orcs speak Turkish and look like Rastafarians and the Nav’i from Avatar are Navaho cross-bred with stretched Smurfs. This is not necessarily a failing of science fiction, but in fact its function: the reimagining of the universe rather than the creation of new universes. And so, as it reproduces notions of the other, it does so from an existing cultural perspective and carries with it the prejudices and assumptions of its own time and place and, of course, of the race that produces it. The great Flash Gordon serials (1936-1940) give us Ming the Merciless, the oriental despot, in keeping with and reinforcing the prejudices that would see, among manifest historical injustices, America intern its own citizens of Japanese origin.
When racism becomes the subject matter, science fiction is frequently cack-handed. Wolfgang Petersen’s 1985 film, Enemy Mine, is a case in point. This reworking of Robinson Crusoe via Hell in the Pacific (Boorman, 1968) sees Dennis Quaid as Will Davidge, a gung-ho, Han Solo-type fighter pilot gleefully waging war against the evil Dracs, a humanoid/reptilian alien race. Stranded on a planet, with an enemy Drac played by Louis Gossett Jr., the erstwhile foes learn to cooperate and become friends. On the surface, it has an impeccably liberal credo, but why does the alien have to be played by a black actor? Gossett Jr. at this point had name recognition since his scene-stealing and Oscar-winning role in An Officer and a Gentleman (Hackford, 1982), but he is the one with an eight-hour make-up job and [SPOILER] becomes irritatingly pregnant. Davidge eventually turns against his own race/species in a way identical to Kevin Costner’s cavalry officer in Dances with Wolves and Sam Worthington’s character in Avatar. This ‘going native’ in itself, however, rests on racist assumptions as old as Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. The white man who realises his complicity in an immoral form of oppression against an ‘alien race’ invariably ends up leading the given community in their resistance, or at least contributing in some vital way. Kyle MacLachlan’s character in David Lynch’s Dune (1984), Paul Artreides, becomes the messianic leader of a marginalised tribe of indigenous people. In District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009), Wickus Van De Merwe, despite going native in an involuntary way (he sees his condition in terms of a disease and longs for a cure), facilitates the escape of the aliens. Of course, from the narrative point of view, each of these characters represents an avatar themselves, a way of inscribing the white audience into an experience of the alien other. But it also realises a white fantasy of superiority, even as it ostensibly assuages white guilt.
The problem is the identification with any alien as non-white: the exception that proves the rule might be the Ã¼ber-white David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (Roeg, 1976). The black actors who voiced Jar Jar and the Nav’i, and Louis Gossett Jr. play opposite white actors. The alien is a tempting analogy for racism, but, in the analogy, a lot is given away. Even as pleas for toleration are voiced, the central tenets of racism are upheld: these beings are resoundingly different, monstrous, etc. The ‘prawns’ of District 9 live in townships and are subject to a racism that the film on one level is explicitly condemning, but the liberal attempt to negotiate racism via the talking head interview with a sociologist is likewise ridiculous: ‘What to them is a harmless pastime such as derailing a train is to us a highly destructive behaviour.’
Call it the Caliban Conundrum. We learn to love the alien, pity the monster, and even as we do, we admit our racist notions of the other as essentially alien, monstrous, non-human. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Caliban is at once a monster to be despised and a creature to be pitied: ‘not honoured with human shape’. He is the other, conjuring fears of miscegenation but also a voice of protest with his own post-colonial voice of political resistance: ‘You taught me language and my profit on it is I learnt how to curse.’ But Caliban, for all that, is still not human.
Of course, there’s the danger of being over-literal here. I get that Caliban’s monstrosity could be portrayed literally, or as a racist projection of the white European colonials. Likewise, science fiction can have something valuable to say about race via attitudes to difference. In fact, District 9 is valuable perhaps because it is not so much against racism as about racism. It appears unabashed, for instance, in its own stereotyping of the Nigerians as the criminal underclass of South Africa and its protagonist doesn’t exactly ‘learn’. Illegal aliens appear in the Men in Black films (Sonnenfeld, 1997, 2002) as little more than a happy pun, but the meaning is explored more interestingly in John Sayles’s 1984 satire, The Brother from Another Planet. Here, the alien is a mute three-toed black man who takes refuge in Harlem, but, in one of the many reversals, the white men in black who pursue him (played by the director, John Sayles, and David Strathairn) are aliens too. In Harlem, the black patrons look after the alien (thinking him an immigrant: ‘half the city is illegal immigrants’) and are immediately hostile to the alien whites. ‘White folks get strange all the time,’ one notes.