it's so... metaphorical

Jeff Barnaby Made an Apocalypse Movie to Watch the System Fall. Then a Pandemic Hit.

For the Blood Quantum director, record unemployment and rampant disease are nothing new: “It’s the way Native people have always lived.” Photo: Shudder

Jeff Barnaby certainly didn’t plan on releasing his horror movie, about a community of indigenous people fighting off hordes of white zombies, during a real-life pandemic that’s currently exposing the gross inequities of neoliberalism — but when life hands you lemons, you juice the hell out of them until the ravaged rinds turn to pulp in your hands.

“I’ve always viewed the Earth as an animal,” says Barnaby, whose new movie Blood Quantum is now available on VOD. “If you start looking at things like viral outbreaks as the planet’s immune system, what would be better for our planet than just turning all these parasites into fertilizer? It’s like it’s turning the stupid fucking white man into something it could use.”

Barnaby wrote and directed Blood Quantum, but he also co-produced the movie, edited it, composed the score, and acted as a music supervisor. He worked himself to the bone getting the film ready for the world, but as a Native filmmaker he’s accustomed to making do with scant resources in a crowded movie landscape. Now, with the world in shutdown and digital release the only real game in town, Blood Quantum has arrived just in time to be one of the only movies to talk about — and boy is there a lot to say.

Set in 1981 on the Mi’gmaq reserve of Red Crow in Quebec — Barnaby’s own community — the movie opens on the early stages of a contagion that ends up turning white folks, and white folks only, into violent monsters intent on infiltrating protected lands. With the “Zs” coming for them, the immune Red Crow must fight the enemy outside while dealing with questions within their own walls: Are the Native people duty bound to help the white survivors, or do generations of marginalization and dehumanization by the ruling classes give them license to lock their gates, protect their own, and let the world outside burn down? Zombie movies have always made for great metaphors, but Blood Quantum is a rich text even by the standards of the form. So Vulture called up Barnaby to peel back some of the many layers.

You’ve expressed concerns about the misogyny in Blood Quantum, while also making it clear that you didn’t want to shy away from the darker aspects of your community. How did you balance this portrayal in the movie?
If you’re talking about colonialism, I don’t see how you do that without talking about the patriarchy or inherent misogyny within the system. If you’re going to talk about the character Lysol in the film being this postcolonial Indian that doesn’t really grasp the concept of keeping the borders open or keeping an open heart or an open mind, which is traditionally what Native people have done when they welcome the survivors, I think you couldn’t not address it. Because it’s an issue within Native communities.

You get the impression that Lysol’s mother died quite violently, or at least she met an early demise, and he’s carrying this darkness around in him that manifests itself in misogyny. I felt like at some point this guy is going to turn into a barbarian and just start asserting dominance. There’s a commentary on male toxicity there, but I wanted to present it in a way that didn’t alienate anyone with any kind of righteous pontificating.

It seems like the better choice to try to reconcile the truth than nice-wash the narrative.
The weird thing is, if you’re a non-Native person, I’m wondering if you’re getting those beats. Like, way back when we first started testing the film, the question that popped up the most is why is Lysol so angry. I was like, Really? You don’t grasp why he’s so angry within the context of the film, or as a broad overview of society?

That’s a real “gestures broadly to all of history” kind of question.
It’s interesting, because you don’t really see Native villains with epic backstories in the sense that he is representative of a history rather than just his story. He’s like the Native Everyman. He’s almost an anti-hero. My wife and I had this back-and-forth, and she’s like, “You know he’s the hero of the movie, right?” And I’m like, “Really? How do you come to that?” And she was like, “Well, everything he says, even though it’s coming from a place of anger, comes true.”

And right there is the dichotomy of living in the 21st century or the 20th century as a Native person, because you’re angry and the anger is righteous, but at the same time it’s the very thing that’s going to lead to your destruction. So, you’re leading this almost dual life of trying to maintain your identity and almost hold on to the anger, while at the same time letting it go and moving past it all.

What’s interesting about this virus is … it’s the way Native people have always lived. It’s nothing new for a Native community to face record unemployment while at the same time dealing with large amounts of diseases. My wife is Navajo and there’s rampant cancer on the reserve just by virtue of being so close to the uranium mines there. So there’s stuff like that baked into the script. The general public is just coming to terms with it now. I think one of the things that nobody really talks about with apocalypse films is the almost ecstasy of seeing the powers that be fall.

I really think that’s what apocalypse movies are about in this day and age. Everybody wants to see this system fall, because people are beginning to realize, Hey, they’re not just exploiting minorities and black people anymore. They’re coming after everybody. Now it’s an issue. Late-stage capitalism, that’s what they’re calling it, and it’s like, this is just capitalism, man! This is the stage that it’s always been at! You’re just new to the game.

You’ve talked about the traumatic postcolonial Native experience as central to understanding the layers at work in the movie, and since I don’t want to be one of those viewers just missing the point, could you break down that experience in the context of Blood Quantum
It’s talking about intergenerational trauma. The thing you liken it to the most is the Holocaust. You talk about Holocaust survivors having PTSD, but you don’t really talk about their children going through the same thing. Children of survivors who were flocking to psychologists and psychiatrists because they are carrying around this grief inside of them and they don’t even know why. I think that’s true of Native peoples who have had this long history of genocide, and then social oppression, and then everything that comes with losing your culture and your language and your land. You carry that around with you and it manifests in different ways. In some people it manifests as drug use, and in some people it manifests as self-loathing.

In Lysol’s case, I think it’s everything. He’s this self-loathing postcolonial Native person, because he grew up in an environment that was trained to fucking hate him. For instance, wrap your head around being a Native person living in Washington, D.C., and having to get up every fucking day and look at that stupid-ass caricature for the football team — and that’s the way the culture at large looks at you. You franchise a genocide, and it becomes a part of the capitalist network of selling things. Having that work on you day in and day out, you become trained to hate yourself, and I think that’s exactly what I mean when I’m talking about postcolonial Native people, and you have a hundred years of this just packed into one person. He’s going to be angry and self-destructive, and the worst thing about it is, he’s going to be righteous in the sense that he knows he’s right. So anything he feels like he does afterward is justified, including destroying himself or anybody else around them. And that’s Lysol. There you have your postcolonial Indian.

Lysol is such a great character because his anger threatens to bring down his own community and the people he wants to protect — and you’re furious at him for it — but given the generational trauma, you can’t reasonably ask him to be any less furious than he is. There’s a moment where the community’s kind of most rational figure, the physician Joss, really validates his rage in a very public way, and I was hoping you could tell me about giving Lysol the benefit of that approval when he’s advocating for abandoning the non-Native people to their fates to save his shelter.
Once lives are at stake, all the pretense of manners are out the window. I think from Joss’s perspective, she’s this brutally pragmatic person, and Lysol turns out to be right. The whole film is just based on the concept of irony. The irony of Natives being immune to a plague, the irony of them being in a position of power, and the irony of Lysol warning against a zombie outbreak that he himself initiates. It was all meant to be flipping the script and ties into this bigger meta-statement of Native people being represented onscreen.

There’s a lot going on for a movie that features a dick being bit off [laughs]. I think that’s kind of what we were gunning for — to make a popcorn movie and not bog it down with too many politics, because I think just by virtue of being a Native person onscreen that’s going to happen anyway. And it’s a pain in the ass as a Native filmmaker because you’re just like any other artist. You want your shit to be cool based on your ideas, not based on whatever cultural demographics that people find interesting.

Yeah, it seems kind of impossible for you to work within a white system and have your art just stand on its own without it also making you a representative for all Native filmmakers. You make a zombie movie and you have to also carry the weight of that responsibility, too.
As a Native filmmaker, what I try to do is not get enamored with being a filmmaker more than being a Native person. That’s what keeps me grounded. I try to represent where I’m from, specifically my reserve, my people, and the people that I grew up around, and having to answer to that community keeps you honest. It doesn’t become so much a chore to be the representative of all Native people.

For me, the frustration is if Netflix comes and does a press release saying, like, “Oh, we’re supporting Native artists,” then fucking do it, man! Let’s see the next $10 million–per–episode show be about Native content actually written and directed by a Native person. Then I’ll feel like we’ll start getting the most minuscule entry-level positions for inclusivity. Even now, is there a Native film industry? Fuck, we’re not even in the conversation in my opinion.

I wonder whether Band-Aid diversity gestures are meant to just be sort of placating, as opposed to sustainable initiatives for change, because that’s easier, or if the people executing them really think these statements about inclusivity without material infrastructure to support them are enough. The rhetoric around change is loud, but are you actually seeing a difference?
Looking at it from the perspective of being a professional working in the industry, some of the stuff that I get is fucking bonkers. Like, what the fuck? It’s like these guys have never seen a Native person in their life, and they’re pulling this shit out of thin air. The metric now is to get yourself a Native spokesperson, so you get yourself a co-signer for whatever white person is writing your bullshit script. It’s like, we’re going to get a white scriptwriter, but we’re going to get a Native script editor and they’re going to okay it. So, that’s what inclusivity from my perspective has looked like.

I’ve been lucky in the sense that I’ve been paid quite well, or enough to live off of it at least, to present my ideas as I see fit to producers that want to do films or TV shows about Native people, but there’s been no reception on the executive industry side of it. It’s been like, “Oh my God, this is the best script I’ve ever read! It’s too bad we can’t do it.” There’s been a lot of that. So far inclusivity in the industry means, on the rare occasion, that you’re getting a Native director in charge, it’s going to be telling a non-Native story, or if you’re getting a Native person onscreen, that story is going to be told by a non-Native person. The last crossover I can think of that happened in Hollywood was probably Smoke Signals, which was like 20 years ago, and the promise that movie made was never delivered by the industry.

Did the tone of the script change at all as you worked on it? I remember the writers of The Last Black Man in San Francisco telling me about earlier drafts of their movie that were a lot angrier than the version they ended up making, because they just had to purge a lot of it out at first.
The earlier drafts were quite angry. Like, they were vicious [laughs]. For me the big change that happened was I became a dad. All of a sudden the most horrifying thing to me wasn’t the dead coming back to life. It was whether or not I was going to be a good dad. I grew up with a shit dad. I grew up in foster care, but I knew my father, and he was just a terrible human being. I didn’t want him to be part of my life. So the movie became a story about the intergenerational shittiness of being a father that isn’t up to the task.

One of the interesting things about living in the generation we’re in right now is that we’re given an opportunity as young Native people to own our fates. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s easier, and the idea that my wife and I are still together raising our son in what’s considered to be a classic nuclear family is quite an accomplishment for Native people when — for the past 200, 300, 400 years — the main focus of the destructive might of the colonies was to destroy Native families. For that to kind of make a comeback I think is almost a miracle.

So for me, it needed to become about family, and we couldn’t mention colonialism without mentioning disease or misogyny or the destruction of that Native family. And there’s no functional family unit in the film, but toward the end you get a sense that there’s going to be a female presence — wise, steady — and there’s going to be a young presence in the father, and you get the impression to a certain degree that they’re going to be not necessarily okay, but better off. Which is absurd because they just came from a zombie apocalypse!

Jeff Barnaby Is Worried White People Won’t Get Blood Quantum