Same Ol' Skinjobs

Blade Runner 2049, "White Slavery," and the Narrative of Tokenism

White Privilege is Forgetting to Include People of Color in Your Slavery Metaphor Film.
Photo Courtesy of Drew Graham CC

I have to preface all of this by admitting that I am a huge Phillip K. Dick fan. I’m often ambivalent or angry about adaptations to his work, largely because surrealist science fiction usually doesn’t survive the Hollywood turnstile without being stripped down to wacky technology and action scenes. The original Blade Runner is no exception, but of the many adaptations of Dick’s stories, it is one of the few that attempts to impart the tone of the original. The cynical noir surrealism is a perfect fit for a story that explores what it means to be human in a dehumanizing society.

Suffice it to say, I was tentatively hopeful that the sequel would do Mr. Dick justice — especially after the first trailer was released. The images of the trailer were pulled right of the page — bees landing on hands and artificial pets and irradiated landscapes. I wanted this film to be good. I couldn’t handle it being another Robocop 2014.

And, I wasn’t disappointed. Blade Runner 2049 is slow and sinister and contemplative. It is strange and sometimes a little uncomfortable. The story isn’t revelatory, but I didn’t expect revelations from a reboot. The story and the world are updated just enough to make it engaging enough. Emotionally, the score and the visuals combine to make a powerful movie (Not even Leto’s overblown supervillain ruined it). It was everything I wanted from a sequel, and more.

Yet, there was one aspect of the story that left me feeling uncomfortable, even as I drove home. Blade Runner, like most android stories, is about slavery. In particular, Blade Runner 2049 explores deeper the implications of being complicit in discrimination against yourself and others like you. It asks one of the eternal philosophical questions about slavery: when you have been taught that you have no worth, what does it take for you to believe that you have worth? It doesn’t shy away from the realities of being a racialized social pariah: for all that the protagonist plays by the rules, he will never be accepted by his rulers, and his complicitness alienates him from his own people. Like any metaphorical slavery, there are gaps where the metaphor doesn’t fit, but overall it is a story that is near and dear to the anti-establishment mindset of Mr. Dick.

White slavery stories have existed as long as racialized slavery. They were especially popular with the budding abolitionist movements and anti-discrimination efforts. There is a reason that so many of the foundational stories of robot revolution were written during the 60s. After all, what better way to convince people of the wrongs of slavery than to make the slaves look like the readers?

I don’t think the method is effective at awakening empathy—seeing a stand-in for oneself in danger only deepens self-preservation. But, I could be wrong.

However, when this de-racialization of slavery is paired with poor representation and tokenism, then the metaphor becomes toxic. Race is seriously problematic in Blade Runner 2049. There are a few token roles—a single black police officer, a black replicant’s photo—but the film features almost exclusively white actors. The few characters of color with spoken lines are unvaryingly “not-human” in that they are androids or holograms; or joke-material even though the film isn’t funny. The vaguely Latina girlfriend is purposefully stripped of any cultural identity, reinforcing the sexy Latina trope her casting was perhaps meant to criticize. Even the crowd scenes are white-washed, with Asian characters functioning as a lower class background to contrast the all-white elite. Maybe it is just me, but futuristic L.A. without people of color looks wrong.

In a movie that explicitly calls out Western Civilizations demand for a “disposable workforce,” there can be no excuse for dehumanizing the few characters and actors of color that made it into the film. That sort of mixed message can only happen when the authors and scriptwriters and directors and producers don’t care to even think about the cultural context of their work.

I’m calling foul. Blade Runner 2049 was a beautiful, moving, surreal film. It was everything that my little nerd heart dreamed it would be.

But it deserves to financially fail. Have we learned nothing in the last 30 years about racial representation? How can we possibly live in our times and allow the white filmmakers and producers to completely ignore the racial politics that surround us?

I’d like to conclude with a quote from Mr. Dick himself, from an essay titled “The Android and the Human.”

“Rather than learning about ourselves by studying our constructs, perhaps we should make the attempt to comprehend what our constructs are up to by looking into what we ourselves are up to.”
Perhaps, Hollywood, you could consider what is happening in the real human world before you make another movie about the mythical all-white future. Maybe then your mythical solution to end racialized divisiveness won't be quite so ridiculous.

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