In October of last year, I attended the screening of director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s dystopian science fiction classic, Blade Runner (1982). Both films were co-written by Hampton Fancher and inspired by Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Just for the record, I find the screenplays written by Fancher and his collaborators far more engaging than Dick’s novel, and this tends to be the case with so many other of his works including, for example, The Man in The High Castle (1962). As a friend of mine who is similarly interested in science fiction cinema intimated to me, following my expression of disappointment with both books, Dick was a lot better at generating interesting ideas than crafting interesting narrative and prose.
However, this is somewhat of a digression from what I want to explore here, which is a critical race/religion theoretical reading of a long scene – in fact, the longest – from Villeneuve’s film. I want to consider the possibility of interpreting this scene as a metaphor for the historically-recurrent phenomenon of ‘White Crisis’ that is arguably manifesting in the contemporary era in such phenomena as Brexit, the rise of the Far Right in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump in the US. Such phenomena need to be understood in relation to concerns about the migration of the non-white/non-Western ‘other’ from the periphery of the modern/colonial world system into its Western core, and I suggest that this ‘other’ is usefully understood in relation to another ‘other’ in Dick’s novel and Scott’s and Villeneuve’s films, viz. the figure of the ‘replicant’.
In order to proceed, I need to state what I take to be the key problematic engaged by the aforementioned novel and films, and that is an exploration of what it means to be human in the context of a world within which it has become possible to create synthetic humanoid lifeforms – the replicants (androids in Dick’s novel) – that are largely indistinguishable from human beings, both in terms of physical appearance and behavior. Insofar as ‘the human’ as an anthropological category can be shown to have a history within Europe/‘the West’ that is thoroughly entangled with religion cum race (Wynter 2003) (Lloyd 2013) it follows that Blade Runner and its replicants readily lend themselves to being interrogated and/or mobilized along racial lines.
In this connection, it was interesting to read various online commentaries exploring the issue of race within the film which appeared shortly after its US release. For example, on the matter of race and dystopia, Angelica Jade Bastién (2017) argues that ‘dystopias feel poignant because they carry the weight of real-world history and dissect today’s problems through a futuristic lens.’ Yet she goes on to state that:
[Dystopias] 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 … How can films create honest dystopian worlds if they ignore the racial strictures that make these narratives possible in the first place?
On a related note, Abby Olcese (2017) describes Blade Runner 2049 as ‘a gorgeous, evocative film that contains plenty of ideas about the way we interact with technology and the nature of the soul. It also contains strong elements of a liberation narrative that would feel empowering but for one aspect: none of its participants are people of color.’ In a similar vein, Devon Maloney (2017) maintains that ‘cyborgs are meant to be stand-ins for oppressed minority groups, but few, if any, minorities are actually present on screen.’ Maloney goes on to argue that
White creators, men in particular, tend instead to whitewash their casts, imagining themselves as both villain and hero. Rather than simply putting the real thing in the story, their tales become metaphors for the real thing. Blade Runner 2049 falls into this trap: Even as [replicant creator Niander] Wallace grandstands about ‘great societies’ being ‘built on the backs of a disposable workforce,’ everyone the movie deems powerful or worth exploring is still white and almost 100 percent male, relegating those disposable workforces’ descendants to the story’s incidental margins.
Yet I am inclined to wonder whether that is – or at least might be – the point, viz. rendering blackness/non-whiteness invisible (nod to Ralph Ellison here). Can Blade Runner be read as a ‘fear of a black planet’ by virtue of its marginalization – if not outright erasure – of non-white characters and replicant proxies for non-whiteness? But I am getting ahead of myself here.
Taken together, I’m inclined to think that these and other such commentaries – for example, those of Schade (2017) and Seewood (2017) – make for a rather biting race theoretical critique pointing to the co-optation – perhaps colonization – of the histories and experiences of the non-white/non-European – more specifically, black – ‘other’ for purposes of manufacturing dystopian narratives. (As an aside, in a forthcoming journal article, “Decolonizing ‘Datafication’ Discourse”, a draft of which was presented at the Data Justice 2018 conference in Cardiff earlier this year, I argue that recent mobilizations of ‘colonialism’ in critical data studies evince a similar act of co-optation which I frame in terms of appropriation and erasure. It has rightly been argued that decolonization is not a metaphor (Tuck and Yang 2012). Ditto colonization/colonialism – a fortiori.)
To be continued…
Bastién, A.J. (2017) Why Don’t Dystopias Know How to Talk About Race? 4 August 2017. Available at: www.vulture.com/2017/08/why-dont-dystopias-know-how-to-talk-about-race.html (accessed 16 November 2018)
Lloyd, V. (2013) Race and Religion: Contribution to Symposium on Critical Approaches to the Study of Religion. Critical Research on Religion 1(1): 80-86.
Maloney, D. (2017) Blade Runner 2049’s Politics Aren’t That Futuristic. Available at: www.wired.com/story/blade-runner-2049-politics/?mbid=BottomRelatedStories (accessed 16 November 2018)
Olcese, A. (2017) ‘Blade Runner 2049’ Paints an All-White Future. Again. 5 October 2017. Available at: sojo.net/articles/blade-runner-2049-paints-all-white-future-again (accessed 16 November 2018)
Schade, L.D. (2017) Watching ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) in the Age of Black Lives Matter. July 27, 2017. Available at: www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/2017/07/blade-runner-1982-black-lives-matter/?repeat=w3tc (accessed 16 November 2018)
Sewood, A. (2017) Slavery and white-on-white crime in the science-fiction film, ‘Blade Runner 2049’. 8 October 2017. Available at: shadowandact.com/blade-runner-2049-slavery (accessed 16 November 2018)
Tuck, E. and Yang, K.W. (2012) Decolonization is Not a Metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 1-40.
Wynter, S. (2003) Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument. CR: The New Centennial Review 3(3): 257-337.