This time around, my room mate and I rented the DVD and watched it in the privacy of our home where we could freely ogle Clive Owen and Chiwetel Ojiofor. However, it was the film's artistic merits that immediately grabbed our attention and soon enough we were so mesmerized by director Alfonso Cuaron's narrative, that any fantasies we might have been harboring were quickly dispelled and replaced with the uncomfortable feeling of impending doom. In short, as a dystopian reflection on what the world might come to (or rather, has already come to - it's temporal proximity is unnerving!), the movie was a success. However, the more I thought about it and examined the source of my discomfort, the more conflicted I became on what the movie was actually trying to say.
Set in a dreary and sterile London, one of the film's most apparent reference is to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland - down to the closing epigraph "Shantih, Shantih, Shantih" - and conveys much of the same message: mankind has reached its destruction and here we are writhing in the aftermath. The premise of Cuaron's film (based on an eponymous novel by P.D. James) is more accessible than Eliot's poem (or so I thought) and goes something like this: it's 2027 and as a species, human beings have lost the ability to reproduce. The youngest person (aged 18 yrs) has just died and around the world, entire civilizations have been brought down to rubble by war. It appears that the UK is the last standing bastion of order (if it can be considered one as even there, people go about their lives with a kind of desolation we see in movies about countries suffering under fascist regimes) and is faced with the challenge of how to organize an influx of immigrants of all nationalities seeking refuge from their native countries' conflicts. It is here that the movie offers its most potent reflections: England's mistreatment of the refugees is appalling and there are many scenes where the film's main protagonist, Theo (played by Owen), encounters caged refugees calling out in agony in what seems like a hundred different tongues.
In the midst of these crises, we find out that there is in deed one last fertile woman, Kee (played by Claire Hope Ashitey), a black immigrant who manages to get pregnant. It is the other characters' imperative that she reach the safety of the Human Project, some organization dedicated to the preservation of human life. This responsibility first falls upon Theo's estranged wife, Julian (played by Julianne Moore), the leader of a radical group which, from what I could tell, seems bent on subversion tactics paralleled in today's world by what some people have called "terrorist" groups. It seems that Julian's preoccupation with this organization keeps her from her husband even though they are clearly still traumatized by the loss of their own child a few years back. However, Julian's relationship with Theo is not completely severed and she turns to him for help in this mission. To cut the long story short, Julian is eventually killed in an altercation between her group and another group of riotous anarchists and the responsibility of protecting Kee lands in Theo's hands. Julian's group, the Fishes - just one of many xtian references, is now led by Luke (played by Ejiofor) and turns out to be overly radical. Wary of the Fishes' violence and intentions, Theo abandons them and takes Kee with him, eventually delivering her to the Human Project shortly before he dies as well.
It is obvious that the film has multiple social, political and cultural subtexts and while this has received due credit from critics, I find myself pondering over other issues that I am yet to find commentary on. Spectacular cinematography and direction aside, the movie has numerous merits, e.g. its sharp condemnation of late capitalism, its startling dramatization of our society as a post-decline one, etc. However, from a racially conscious and/or feminine (oh the burden of being a black woman) stand-point, I could not help but flinch during several scenes.
1. The Miseducation of Kee: I am not quite sure how old Kee is, but she must be over 18 if that was how old the youngest person in the world was. However, in spite of this, Kee professes to not knowing anything at all about pregnancy and was completely clueless when she got pregnant herself. Given the storyline, I guess I could let this slip by. Considering the world has been barren for at least 18 years, then maybe sex ed. isn't a priority. Fine. But what am I to make of the fact that the only fertile woman (and unwed mother) is black? Is this a stereotypical comment on black female sexuality and/or roles? Also, the revelation of her pregnancy to Theo in the barn amidst the farm animals (while clearly an allusion to Christian ideology) made me shudder a little bit. There was something primal about her bearing her breasts among other animals and exposing herself to a white man's gaze. Watching this the first time on that date (which happened to be with a white guy) made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and I felt exposed by extension - and I am by no means a prude! Was her nudity gratuitous? It certainly made for a provocative scene but really, in no instance would I strip naked to show a stranger that I was pregnant and I wasn't sure what that was about.
2. Beware of the Black Man: Simply put, Luke (Ejiofor) is a straight up maniac. He doesn't even blink an eye when he point blank shoots someone. When he is not yelling orders at vein-popping intensities, he lowers his voice to this saccharine manipulative tone that gave me the chills. Julian asks Kee to trust no one but Theo even though Luke appears to be her #2 and could this be playing on societal perceptions of black men as violent thugs and inefficient idiots? I suppose he was allowed greater variation and complexity than other characters of color in other films but still, I was nervous every time he was in a scene, like "Oh god, what is he going to do this time?"
3. I Need a Hero: Could Kee have asked for a more self-immolating savior than Theo? Swoon. He displays more courage, sensibility and emotion than any other character but with the kind of flaws that make him all the more human, and what's more, there is an explanation for his errors, so that unlike everyone else, we know that he's been through some tough experiences but he still has that noble spirit in there. I guess if we kept with the Jesus narrative here, Theo would be a Joseph-type character, but I don't think I would be wrong to describe him as Messianic as he literally dies for our sins. Was his character as patronizing for you as he was for me? Was his death a caution against what might happen to the white man if he overextends himself for the sake of people of color (think, for instance, of the argument people have on Affirmative Action)?
4. The Cult of Domesticity: This one has little if anything to do with race, and more with gendered roles. The true mother-figure in this film is not Kee (at least in my perspective) but Julian. We see Julian, the happy mother, smiling with her perfect family in that picture at Jasper Palmer's house - incidentally Palmer is played by Michael Caine and even his character is brilliantly fleshed out despite being on the screen for a much shorter time than Luke or Kee. We see self-sacrificing mother, dedicated to the Kee cause, repressing her own grief for the sake of others. And of course we see ultimate sacrifice mother, shot in the neck and dying so that Kee and her child may live. However, the film handles Julian very differently from how it does Theo and apart from valorizing her as it did him, as saviors of the human race, it turns on her and I was not sure if her character was a testimony to what might happen if the woman oversteps her domestic duties. In engaging the world outside her marital duties, Julian seems to have abandoned her poor husband who has spiraled into the depths of alcoholism and utter despair. The family unit is shattered and her absence in the domestic realm is deeply felt. However, she fails even at this new capacity and it is her husband who ultimately comes to the rescue, successfully completing what she had so futilely dedicated herself to.
There are clearly a lot of things I loved about the movie, and that is why it took me so long to articulate the things that I did not like. Even now, having them written down in some semblance of order, I am still conflicted. My room mate absolutely loved the film, but for some reason, I just cannot get over the uncomfortable feeling it gave me at the pit of my stomach. Am I missing something here? The more I thought about the film, the more it seemed as a reflection not on the fragility of the human race, but of the white race specifically, the white male ego (gah, I like you white guys, really I do, this is not an attack! I'm jes seyin...). It seems to play on the anxieties people might have not only about race but about working women as well. Not to mention that one scene where, if I am not mistaken, Theo looks out of his window at the burning London skyline and sees the domed roofs characteristic of Arab architecture. Was that an appeal to society's Islamophobic sentiments?
EDIT: OK it seems that I may have been wrong - kinda - on #2. I just remembered that we do see Luke's human side when he breaks down towards the end. So maybe he isn't portrayed as a maniac afterall. I still stand by my criticism in all other points though. Especially about the women.