Why Don’t Dystopias Know How to Talk About Race?

By
L-R: Her, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell. Photo: Warner Bros/Paramount Pictures

All week long, Vulture is exploring how dystopias have been imagined in popular culture.

Dystopias are currently having a moment. In the wake of the presidential election that brought Donald Trump to power, George Orwell’s 1984 has become a best seller. The Handmaid’s Tale gave Hulu a new level of clout and became the emblem of conversations around women’s bodily autonomy. Black Mirror continues to thrill and unnerve in equal measure as it imagines the most toxic outcomes for humanity’s technology-obsessed present. Most notably, over 30 years after the noir-inflected, neon-drenched original’s release — which consequently wrote the book on cinematic dystopias that have come since — its sequel, Blade Runner 2049, will hit theaters this fall. It’s no surprise: Dystopias feel poignant because they carry the weight of real-world history and dissect today’s problems through a futuristic lens. But they can’t ever be fully separated from the history that powers their narratives.

In film and TV, this sets up an incongruity: The genre hyperconsumes the narratives of people of color — which read as allegories for slavery and colonialism — yet remains starkly white in the casting of major roles, and often refuses to acknowledge race altogether. In these future worlds, classism and sexism continue to flourish. Most dystopias — Gattaca, Dark City, Code 46, THX 1138, Aeon Flux, Robocop, Judge Dredd and countless other examples — render oppression solely or most prominently along class lines, perhaps as a distinct echo of Fritz Lang’s gorgeously designed Metropolis (1927). Sexism itself is less rigorously explored, but often inadvertently snakes its way through these narratives. (I don’t think Blade Runner is saying anything outright about gender dynamics, but it’s hard not to read the treatment of the character Rachel as an example of sexism remaining entrenched in the future.) Furthermore, works like Mad Max: Fury Road, Strange Days, V for Vendetta, Westworld, and The Handmaid’s Tale more directly take on misogyny to varying degrees.

Somehow, racism is nonexistent, but the allegories are rarely subtle, whether it be District 9 reimagining apartheid through insectlike aliens, the grating exoticism of Firefly, which takes the idea of the Civil War into distant space, or the offensive contradictions in the recent, whitewashed Ghost in the Shell adaptation. Often, there’s also the suggestion that everything is so devastating, racial hierarchies become less important (take the showrunner of The Handmaid’s Tale suggesting that fertility would supercede other issues). This sort of argument would be troubling in any genre, but in dystopias — a genre that is meant to illuminate and critique current societal problems by reconfiguring them in an exaggerated, but still somewhat plausible context — it becomes especially so. If dystopias are meant to imagine our future and reconfigure our present, what does it say that filmmakers are unable to reckon with the racial implications of their stories?

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.”

The issue is as much a lack of imagination as it is a byproduct of entrenched issues of representation that Hollywood is only beginning to openly reckon with as an industry. If we take a look at the most beloved and influential cinematic dystopias, most of the people involved, from the directors down the line of production, are white. But whiteness doesn’t necessarily preclude these filmmakers from taking on the necessary cultural and racial nuance that would deepen their stories. Works from the unnerving, visually potent They Live (1988) to the career of The Twilight Zone’s creator Rod Serling prove it’s possible for white filmmakers to do more than treat the present-day anxieties of people of color as the foundation for a future that somehow doesn’t include them. Despite Serling’s work being name-checked just as often as Blade Runner, it seems his contemporaries didn’t value the lessons he sought to instill about science fiction being a useful vehicle for social change and bracing conversations. As he said in 1960 when asked about his decision to have an all-black cast for an episode of The Twilight Zone, “Television, like its big sister, the motion picture, has been guilty of the sin of omission … Hungry for talent, desperate for the so-called ‘new face,’ constantly searching for a transfusion of new blood, it has overlooked a source of wondrous talent that resides under its nose.” Serling was openly radical about notions of race, class, and gender, which is why The Twilight Zone endures. For about 30 minutes each week, audiences crowding around their small black-and-white TV screens could be thrilled, awed, and most importantly, challenged. In Serling’s last interview just before his death, in 1975, he was open about the censorship he faced in order to get The Twilight Zone on air, particularly with regard to race. “I’ve disliked it intensely in the old days when you were trying to talk race relations,” he said, “and they would not allow you to talk about the legitimacies of race relations.”

It’s easy for filmmakers to indict our current administration or to look back on the past as if history reflects a straight line of progress. It’s far more difficult for filmmakers to create future worlds that honestly indict present-day racial dynamics. As a result, most dystopian films end up ignoring the thorny politics of entrenched systems of oppression in favor of signaling out one lead character who gloriously resists and somehow survives — a conservative narrative that suggests oppression can be overcome if people just try hard enough. There is something disturbing about filmmakers portraying white characters as both those most harmed by oppression and the sole heroes able to dismantle it. This is partially a result of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap narratives that hinge upon one lead character overcoming the odds. It makes for easy three-act structures and star vehicles — look at The Hunger Games and the cottage industry of knockoffs it spawned, as well as films of a similar mold like Divergent to Elysium — but it undercuts the messages of resistance these films gesture toward making. (An exception is Mad Max: Fury Road, which proved you can create adrenaline-fueled action sequences that are technical marvels and meaty commentary that makes the dystopian setting worthwhile.) It’s this inability to understand the nature of resistance that gives dystopias an uneasy pall. Dystopias should make us uncomfortable. They should entertain us as much as they make us question our roles in the problems they highlight. As sci-fi novelist Alaya Dawn Johnson told me, “dystopias make sense when they make relevant social commentary, and though I think the genre originated with that vision, the current crop of dystopias seems to aim far more for escapism than honesty.”

One of the more curious dynamics in dystopian films and TV shows is the influence of Asian cultures (typically Chinese and Japanese), despite predominantly white casts (save for the occasional Asian actor on the sidelines if you’re lucky). Blade Runner fits this mold, as do Ghost in the Shell and Firefly. Science fiction has long had an uncomfortable relationship with Asian cultures, which are mined to create visual splendor in order to communicate otherness. At times, they’re picked for how they communicate a gleaming future — Spike Jonze’s Her and Blade Runner operate as very different reinterpretations of cities like Tokyo and Shanghai. Meanwhile, in a film like Ghost in the Shell, Asian characters themselves can feel like props. As critic Jen Yamato put it in a conversation about the failures of Ghost in the Shell, “Japanese actress Rila Fukushima, whose casting was used as a diversity shield to deflect whitewashing accusations in the trades, only shows up as a killer geisha-bot in the film, her real face hidden behind a robotic mask.” In these examples and others throughout science fiction, race is relegated to inspiration, coloring the towering cityscapes of these worlds, while the white characters toil under the hardships that brown and black people experience acutely in real life. In this way, dystopias become less fascinating thought experiments or vital warnings than escapades in which white people can take on the constraints of what it means to be the other.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t dystopian works that reckon with race either directly or obliquely. The Brazilian Netflix series 3%, Snowpiercer, and various Afro-Futurist texts center people of color to varying degrees, adding new wrinkles to dystopias and science fiction as a whole. And of course, as in all film and TV, representation is just one part of the problem; characterization is another. Take Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, which imagines a near-future where women are infertile. It stars Clare-Hope Ashitey as Kee, an African immigrant who, as the first pregnant woman in 18 years, functions as a symbol of hope. But Kee is just that: a symbol, not a fleshed-out human being given the weighty backstory or interiority of Clive Owen’s pessimistic lead. When Kee is introduced, she’s half-naked, her swollen belly impossible to ignore, and surrounded by livestock. It’s a moment that reads as both religious and somewhat offensive, equating black women with being closer to nature and more simplistic. Even in Children of Men, which is by far one of the most haunting modern dystopias, particularly for its acknowledgment of immigration and racial issues, the symbolic representation of Kee is hard to ignore.

One of the most fascinating dystopian visions I’ve ever seen is Born in Flames, a 1983 documentary-styled film that was written, directed, edited, and produced by Lizzie Borden. It includes neither the oppressive gray landscape seen in works like Snowpiercer nor the neon visuals of Blade Runner. Instead, it looks pretty much like New York City did in 1983 in order to present an alt-history about the United States as a socialist democracy. Born in Flames depicts how women — particularly black and brown women — suffer in this alt-history, losing out on jobs and watching as an activist dies under mysterious circumstances in police custody. Born in Flames has been regarded less as a moving film and more as overwrought leftist propaganda and mere historical curio by some critics. But in centering its gaze upon the fraught politics that queer women of color experience, it offers a new dimension for science fiction (much like the offshoot genre of Afro-Futurism). Early in the film, there’s a scene I was so deeply affected by, I felt my heart lurch in my throat. A young woman is walking down the street to make a call at a pay phone when two men start harassing her. They begin by trailing her every step, calling out ingratiating come-ons that most women will recognize from day-to-day life. Then things get physical. They grab at her dress, her hair, her exposed skin, pushing her to the ground in broad daylight. It’s hard to discern where one person ends and another begins. But what is undeniable is her fear. Her screams echo throughout the barren cityscape. Their limbs entwine as she futilely tries to wrestle out of their grasp. They bite, caress, and claw at her. She’s saved when one of the resistance movements, led by a queer black woman, ride in on bicycles to scare the men away. I’ve seen sexual assaults onscreen, far more than I care for, but I can’t remember the last time I felt the ping of abject fear while watching them. There was something about how truthfully Borden captures this moment, highlighting the panic and entrapment women of color experience, now and in potential futures, that grants the film its power.

Born in Flames doesn’t have the slickness of Ghost in the Shell nor the intricate production design of Blade Runner, but something more valuable that filmmakers have forgotten when crafting these worlds: It speaks truth to power, creating a complex vision of inter-community resistance and questioning the demands of the world we live in today. By sidelining racism while using its real-world evocations as inspiration, filmmakers are doing more than going against modern audiences’ rightful desire for better representation. They’re leaving fascinating opportunities on the table. How can films create honest dystopian worlds if they ignore the racial strictures that make these narratives possible in the first place?

Why Don’t Dystopias Know How to Talk About Race?