Kim Niccolini has a new initiative…
Kim Niccolini has a new initiative…
Okay, I am ready to put myself on the line and be one of the few people who have dared to give Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie (2015) a favorable review. Quite frankly, I loved the movie, and I really feel no need to apologize for my enthusiasm. Sure, there are many reasons why certain people feel obliged to be Blomkamp Haters. His second film Elysium (2013) was a complete bomb compared to his groundbreaking first film District 9 (2009). Still, both films are dystopian visions of contemporary economics and expose the ever growing chasm between the Haves and Have Nots. The films focus out outsiders in general and put class before race, and as such they provide universal messages about the marginalized in an economic System that continues to shove the large majority of people into impoverished to the fringes while the few and the privileged live high on the hog. I have no complaints about either of the films from an ideological standpoint, even if the second as a disappointment.
Many criticize Blomkamp for the color of his skin because he is a white man making films set in South Africa, but South Africa happens to be his home, and certainly economic “violence” strikes across race in South Africa as much as it does across the rest of the world. To up the ante for the Chappie-Haters, Blomkamp chose to use the band Die Antwoord to star as the human leads. This put yet another iron on the fire of disdain from the politically correct Left. Both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord have been pulled under the rug for being white while providing cultural commentary on a country that savagely endorsed racism (Apartheid), the legacy of which is strewn across the slums and economic failures that populate the Post-Apartheid South African landscape.
However, whether you endorse the color of their skin or not, when you look closely at what they are doing, both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord are offering their own form of socio-political critique, even if you don’t like its flavor. Sure, they are white, but the violent landscape of Global Capitalism cuts across race. Die Antwoord provides a form of satiric commentary which is as biting and savage as the Systems which brought us Apartheid and its aftermath – a world economy that has pushed the vast majority of the world population into the economic margins. They expose the simplistic and fetishistic views of South Africa that are perpetuated on the Left as well as the Right. Nothing is as simple as black and white in the world we live in, so to critique Blomkamp’s film or its stars based on the color of their skin or their use or re-appropriation in their art and music is missing the point of the film – a point which is universal and human.
If people could put aside their compulsion to put others in boxes (a tendency that Blomkamp addresses in all his films) and just let the film work on them on an experiential level, they may findChappie a lot more than they initially think it is.
Certainly the film offers a story we have seen before in Sci-Fi and asks familiar questions. Can robots be more human than humans? What happens when we employ machines to police people? What is Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness, and can they be wedded? These are familiar sci-fi plot devices. But ultimately Chappie is more about humanity, and the robot Chappie is one of the most human characters to grace the multiplex screen in recent times.
Set in the dystopian near future of 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa (Blomkamp’s childhood home), the movie pays tribute toRobocop (Blomkamp’s favorite film) as it shows a city that has completely run amok in crime and corruption. A giant corporation Tetravaal profits from the economic demise by creating a force of robot police to maintain order amid chaos.
One of the robot cops is a real failure at his job. He’s a loser of a robot who keeps getting sent back to the factory for repairs. He routinely is blown to bits; his battery is fused to his chest (ultimately giving him a death sentence since it can’t be replaced); and he loses arms, legs, and ears daily on the job. He wasn’t fit to be a cop, so his designer Deon (Dev Patel) takes the robot’s scraps and decides to use them to test his experiment to infuse robots with human consciousness. In other words, Deon wants to instill Artificial Intelligence with Authentic Human Emotions. This robot will become Chappie.
Deon is kidnapped by a gang (played as themselves by Die Antwoord) who wants to use Deon to shut down all the robocops so they can go on a crime spree and get money to pay off a gang leader. When they discover that Deon has the parts and ability to build them their very own Gangster #1 Motherfucker (or as Chappie later will say Fuckermother), the gang forces Deon to build the robot for them to help them with their robberies and heists. Deon builds the robot, gives it artificial intelligence, and it is born as a baby.
Die Antwoord’s Yolandi and Ninja play themselves and become Chappie’s “parents.” While Yolandi raises him like a child (giving Chappie his name and becoming his Mommy), Ninja and his partner in crime Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) try to toughen up Chappie and turn him into the Bad Ass Gangster they need him to be. In the meanwhile, Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore. Moore is a total jackass Christian veteran bully with a mullet. He is the kind of guy who thinks everyone at the office likes him, when really they hate him. Moore wants his giant unwieldy big-balled robot the Moose to take over the streets and replace Deon’s much more efficient and tidy police force. Signourey Weaver plays the self-serving CEO of Tetravaal, the company that is literally making a killing by policing a city populated by the disenfranchised and the desperate.
The movie comes down to a lot of different things: corporate interests versus human toll; economic competition; alternative family; the brutality of the world; artificial intelligence versus consciousness; the ultimate battle between the less bad and the worse bad. In the end, it is a sincere and authentic vision of how to find a place for outsiders in an unlivable world. I was hooked from the beginning, watched it twice, and would see it again in a heartbeat. This is why.
First and foremost on my list is Chappie. The film’s director and human leads may be white, but Chappie the robot is beyond race. He is the universal underdog who everyone can root for. He is a pile of salvaged scraps – corporate refuge turned into a being who is vulnerable, gullible, smart, and completely empathetic. What’s not to love about Chappie? From the early scenes when we see him return to the factory as a beat-to-shit reject ready for the Crusher to watching him grow and learn as a child, crying for him while he is brutalized by gangs and aforementioned asswipe Vincent Moore, and cheering for him and feeling for him during all his confused and bewildered travails. We are with Chappie through the duration of the film, and we feel for and with him (if we allow ourselves to be “human”). Chappie is a mess of conflicts just like people are. He tries to please his parents and defend his family and honor while also coming to terms with concepts of economic necessity, social hierarchy, mortality and consciousness.
We root for Chappie from the beginning. Sharlto Copley “plays” Chappie, and it is his voice and his movements (which were then inscribed with animation) that bring Chappie to life. Every phrase Chappie utters went straight to my heart, whether I was crying or laughing. His innocence is heartrending as he has to learn to survive in a world where innocence is a tremendous liability. Chappie is the underdog of underdogs. He is adopted by underdogs; he makes friends with a dog, and he is taught the brutality of a dog-eat-dog world.
Every expression, every gesture brings Chappie to life. He makes a promise to Deon “his maker” that he will not kill. Because of this he refuses to participate in Ninja’s ass-saving heist. Ninja brings Chappie to a monolithic, gutted half-constructed, luxury high rise apartment building to get explosives for the heist. The building is a real-life construction that literally was never completed. It stands as a symbol of hopeless economic hope. When Chappie is left to wait with the dogs (literal fighting pit bulls), he discovers a dead pit bull. Ninja points to the dead dog and then to a caged live one and asks Chappie which one he’d rather be. Chappie says he wants “to live” so he chooses the live dog, but Blomkamp makes it clear that neither choice is a viable option. This is a brutally impossible position. The pit bulls represent people on the economic fringes who or being pushed to die or live in a cage cannibalizing scraps from other underdogs.
This is the world of Chappie, yet Chappie still maintains integrity and a painfully aware innocence amongst the carnage. It is no surprise that Chappie ends up being the most intelligent character in the film. He figures out what humans are incapable of figuring out for themselves. He certainly is a hero for our times largely because he shows that nothing is simple when you occupy the bottom rungs. Somehow the fact that Chappie is a defunct, mortal, fucked-up yet innocent robot makes the fragility, complexity and brutality of humanity much more effective.
I think that one of the reasons people panned Chappie is because the trailer made it look like some kind of WALL-E meets Short Circuit mash-up. It looked like Blomkamp was taking the road of human sincerity and sap. There is plenty of sincerity in this film, but it comes from a place of brutal reality which is not remotely sappy. Yes, we have to suspend our disbelief to feel for Chappie, but I found that quite easy to do. After all, that is what movies ask us to do. SUSPEND OUR DISBELIEF. So get over it.
Chappie lands himself in an alternative family, but he also gets a powerful and painful dose of the “real world.” This is not a world that we are going to find at Disneyland. This is a world where the Have Nots battle other Have Nots fight for pieces of the pie that corporations and global economic interests hold tight in their grip. It is a world of slums, violence, and economic despair. It is a world where people scrap and scrape for anything they can get. So it makes sense that this robot made of scraps would be our hero in a world where people really are like dogs fighting over the bones that are thrown their way.
But there is also a lot of sincerity in this world. That comes not only from Chappie but from the oddball casting of Die Antwoord as Chappie’s family. Living true to the band’s aesthetic, Yolandi and Ninja (performing as themselves except washed up and living a life of crime), the band/gang lives in a gutted industrial building which looks like a post-apocalyptic child’s playroom. Both Yolandi and Ninja deliver incredibly nuanced performances. They are both cynical and childlike. They will brutally commit crimes to survive, yet their survival centers on love of family. It’s a tough mix. They wear cast-off clothing that children would wear (a t-shirt with a kitten on it or a sweatshirt with dolphins), or they wear their own obsolete band fashions. They are repurposed cast-offs just like Chappie, and in many ways they are equally conflicted. They need to survive. They need to take up arms. They need to fight the fight, but at the same time they really just want to be a family. When their other family member Amerika is brutally murdered by AssWipe and his Moose, it is shocking and devastating.
I can’t imagine a better casting choice by Blomkamp than Die Antwoord. Pink slippers, teddy bears, TV cartoons, and plastic toys fill their squat along with firearms and drugs. This is a complicated world where economics and innocence collide.
Die Antwoord’s repurposing is an ode to times past as well as a testimony to the wretched excess of human waste that just ends up as garbage – social and cultural waste. This meshes perfectly with Blomkamp’s aesthetic. I must note that Blomkamp hand-built his robots from “scraps” before his designs went to the animation table. From dirt bikes to outdated computer monitors, he threw in everything but the kitchen sink to turn garbage into art and then into cinematic life. This can be felt in the movie. It is also reflected in such details as Chappie’s use of a stack of Sony Play Stations to transfer human consciousness.
In interviews, Blomkamp always says he’s an artist more than a filmmaker, and that definitely shows in Chappie. Whether in the magnificent trash-turned-beauty sprawl of Die Antwoord’s hideway or in the dystopian shots of Johannesberg, the film is great looking.
Speaking of repurposing, not only does the movie use Die Antwoord’s actual music playing diegetically (within the context of the narrative) on car stereos, etc to lend the movie a sense of the culturally obsolete, but the musical score by Hans Zimmer is performed on actual Moog Synthesizers (more repurposing from the past). The score is utterly fantastic, one of the best musical scores of the year for sure.
The movie also has no shortage of action and explosions as well as laughs. It pulls us in so many directions at once, ultimately leading us to the same final place – what does it really mean to be “human”? Can we be human without human bodies? Would we be better off that way?
Don’t underestimate the political economics of this movie either. While Blomkamp’s earlier films District 9 and Elysium very clearly showed the divide between those who have power and money and those who don’t, this film brilliantly shows life at the bottom of the pit, how those who are left with scraps survive, and how they ultimately maintain humanity in an inhumane world.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She is currently completing a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will be featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA this summer. She is also completing a book of her Dirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest examination of working class Belgian life under the life-sucking beast of Darwinian Capitalism is a minimalist parable with maximum effect. Two Days, One Night (2014) follows the harrowing plight of Sandra (Marion Cotillard) as she tries to save her job working in a factory that builds solar panels. Sandra is a young Belgian mother who recently returned to work from an illness. She learns that her coworkers have been forced by the boss of the company to make a choice – receive their annual bonus of 1,000 Euros ($1,200) and lay-off Sandra, or forfeit their bonus and let Sandra keep her job. Sandra has one weekend (two days and one night) to visit her fellow workers and convince them to give up their bonuses and vote in her favor on Monday morning.
The Dardennes never once leave Sandra. This is her movie, and we are right by her side in her plight for the entire 95 minutes of the film. As she desperately makes phone calls and visits peoples’ homes to plea her case, the camera follows her every move. The film is scored by the clomping of her boots as she treks and trudges through the streets and countryside of Belgium. Never once does the camera pull away to an outside perspective. Sandra is in every single scene, so we absorb her experience by being completely immersed in it. Because of this, webecome Sandra, and she becomes us. She is an “everywoman” of our time.
We are with her as she stands in front of each door ringing the bell to ask for help. We feel her hesitation, the tension, the despair, the pressure, the degradation. The doors themselves become stories or portraits of the people who live behind them. The Dardennes are great at subtle details, and each door is etched with details of class. Some are decorated with iron gratings with bows soldered onto them. These serve as signifiers of trying reach beyond the trappings of the lower class. They are badges of the working class, emblems of what the people have worked hard to earn. They are the material of the thousand Euros that will cause Sandra to lose her job.
Sandra desperately fears losing her class position and her townhouse and having to return to public housing. The doors of the homes she visits, their manicured yards, their frosted glass windowpanes, and their tidy porches are testaments to the workers’ hard work to rise above the economic trap of public housing. However, not all workers can throw away their thousand Euros on new doors. Some live in apartment buildings with ragged doorbells in rows, their names blurred and scrawled to near anonymity. Even among the workers at the factory, there is class differentiation as evidenced by the bells Sandra rings, the doors she knocks on, and the activities of the people who live behind them. The Dardennes are so good at showing class through details.
Sandra visits the workers on the weekend, during their time off from work, and we get a glimpse of their private lives. They do the kinds of things regular working people do. They work on cars, or do laundry at the launderette. One man cuts tiles for a second job. One woman is redecorating a bedroom. A father coaches his son’s football team. All these people are ordinary working people doing ordinary things. They have the things that are important to them – their jobs, their homes, their families, their things. And these everyday details make us realize how vulnerable Sandra is on the brink of losing hers.
Sandra really is on the brink. We learn early on that she has been absent from work due to an illness and is just now returning. In her absence, the factory discovered that they could accomplish the same amount of work with one less person. If sixteen workers can perform the work of seventeen, why hire Sandra back? So the company forces the employees to vote against her and for themselves.
Sandra is popping pills from the beginning of the film, and at first we don’t know what they are. Eventually we learn that her illness was actually depression. The Dardennes are clever. Clearly depression can be read two ways in this film – emotional depression and economic depression. The film paints a picture of what happens emotionally when people are forced to resort to extreme measures to maintain stability during an economic depression. Sandra is diagnosed with both literal and economic depression, and perhaps the Dardennes are saying that the latter feeds the former. Certainly the rise of antidepressants and antianxiety medication occurred with the shift to global capitalism and the outsourcing of jobs and increasing pressures on the worker.
While the camera follows Sandra on her plight, it also follows her as she swallows handfuls of Xanax to try to cope. She chugs them down with bottled water as she heaves her tired body up roads to visit more houses and plea with more workers to vote for her job and not their bonus. We are right by her side when Sandra shakes her fellow workers’ hands, watches them cry or express outrage or guilt at her request. We turn with her as she turns her back on a woman who says she won’t help her yet offers Sandra a cup of orange juice. We fall on the ground with her when two workers go to fist-to-cuffs over her case and she gets hit in the face. We occupy Sandra on her plight, and we cry with relief when someone says he or she will vote in her favor. We feel the outrage and despair when one of her factory friends refuses to even answer the bell though Sandra knows she is inside and the woman is supposedly Sandra’s friend.
We are literally inside Sandra’s shoes, which the Dardennes emphasize by continually focusing on Sandra’s feet in motion. Except when she is standing still frozen with hopelessness or lying in bed staring blankly in despair. Then we are looking out of her eyes into the futureless future she sees – the loss of her working class position and return to public housing which she sees as an ultimate failure. She cries that she is invisible. In this economy, workers are invisible and disposable. They are pitted against each other for survival, and they are thrown in a pit like so many cocks tearing each others’ throats out for a bigger pay check. This is a movie that tests human spirit in a time when it has been beaten down to the ground.
The workers all respond differently. Some say they need the money to pay heating bills, clearly barely making ends meet and needing the bonus for basic living necessities. Others say they need it to buy school clothes for their children or pay for home repairs, so they refuse to vote in Sandra’s favor. Then there are the ones who are outraged at her visit and plea. They say the bonus is what they have coming to them, and they curse Sandra for trying to steal their piece of the pie. Others cry that it’s “not fair” to be put in such a position, and certainly it is not fair. That is the bottom line. None of this is fair. This economy isn’t fair. No one – the workers or Sandra – should be in this position. It is not Sandra’s choice. It is not the workers’ choice. They are thrust into the arena like Romans thrown to the tigers, or tributes offered at the Hunger Gamesor citizens drawing pieces of paper to decide who will be stoned in the coal town in Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery (1948).
Except this isn’t 1948. This is 2015, and as usual the Dardennes give us plenty of reminders that we are in the world of 21st century global capitalism. The constantly ringing mobile phones (an ever present character in their films) remind us that this is the world of money on the move. Fast moving traffic clogs the roads with Japanese and Korean made cars. Traffic is always the main soundtrack in a Dardennes film, and in fact it is the sound that closes this and many of their other films as the screen dissolves to black. Frequently the very last sounds we hear in a Dardennes film, including this one, is traffic.
The sound of cars on the move situates us in the real environment of working class Belgium, but it also reminds us that we are inside the world of money trafficking and the people caught up in it. Sandra needs her job. Every single person she visits needs his or her job. They all need money because money is what makes things move. People can buy things, move through the class system, and move from public housing to townhouses. But this movement is also an illusion. Mostly the working class can be thrown into the dog-eat-dog, people-eat-people landscape of Darwinian Capitalism, a ferocious worldwide empire of money where workers are led to believe that it’s okay to chew their friends’ leg off for their own survival.
This movie shows a desperate and suffocating state of economics for the everyday people trying to get by. Marion Cotillard plays all the complexities of this pressure to the hilt. At moments she is on the brink of suicide. At others she makes her kids’ beds in an attempt to create order and stability in an economic world that makes no sense. At times she takes a deep breath and marches staunchly to the next house to plead for their vote. In a flash, she’s back home climbing into bed with a mouthful of pills and eyes full of blank resignation. Her eyes stare shell-shocked out of her taut and exhausted face. She is caught between the refusal to give in and the desire to succumb to desperate hopelessness, between fighting for her survival and giving up. The place she occupies is the place so many people occupy today.
Sandra is the one knocking on the doors, but the people answering are equally desperate. They just happen to have their jobs . . . for now. In the meanwhile, Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) works as a cook in a restaurant, and he dedicatedly sticks to Sandra’s side. He does not give up and does not let her give up. In a small moment when they turn up the car radio and exchange a smile in the car, the small tear-streaked smile that cracks out of Sandra’s worn and exhausted face is enough to break our hearts. There is some life left. In fact, as much as the economic system wants to beat these people down, the human spirit does reign.
I couldn’t help but note the irony of the job Sandra is trying to save. She works in a solar factory, a place that harnesses sunlight while its business practices have trapped her and the other workers in darkness. Also, this is supposed to be an alternative energy source, yet the only alternative energy source we see is one of labor exploitation. The alternative we see is economic practices that have fractured solidarity amongst workers and demand workers cut each other’s throats or risk losing their job and their pay check.
It is not all darkness, and in many ways this is the “lightest” of the Dardennes’ films, though still a brutal portrayal of 21st century capitalism. Some people do come through for Sandra. Most notably, Sandra confronts one woman who lives with her wealthy asshole abusive husband in a posh house in the countryside. He tells his wife not forfeit her bonus for Sandra because they need a new patio, as if a patio were more important than a human life. But the woman changes her mind. She leaves the husband and joins Sandra on her plight. The Dardennes never use soundtrack music. All music is diegetic and comes from within the narrative of the film. In a scene of moving solidarity and triumph of the human spirit, Sandra, her husband and their new comrade crank up the volume to “Gloria” on the car radio and sing along smiling at each other.
Here she comes
Walkin’ down the street
Here she comes
Comin’ through my door
Here she comes
Crawlin’ up my stair
And here comes Sandra. She visits one house, and a young black girl takes her to meet her father who is doing laundry at the local launderette. From the state of his home with the peeling paint and beat-up door, he clearly is in economic hardship. He says that he knows voting in Sandra’s favor is the right thing to do even though he fears repercussions from his co-workers and is scared he will lose his job because he is a temporary contract worker. However, when Monday comes, he does vote for her.
I’m not going to give the ending away and spoil the film, but I will say that in the end it is not about whether Sandra keeps her job or the other employees get their bonuses. It is about the triumph of the human spirit even in the dehumanizing system of Darwinian Capitalism. It is about trying to grab that moment outside of economic pressure and simply do the right thing. The economic system isn’t going change anytime in the near future, but the human spirit has the potential to prevail and can be bigger and better than money.
Of further interest:
Read Kim Nicolini’s reviews of two other Dardenne brothers movies:
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thirty minutes into Kim Nguyen’s film War Witch (2012) (simply titled Rebelle in its original French Canadian release) I knew I was watching something like nothing I had seen before. Nguyen’s film is based on true stories of child soldiers captured in Burma by rebels to fight against the government army. The film is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo and told through the eyes and words of the young girl Komona. It follows Komona from ages 12-14 as she is torn from her childhood and thrown into the blood-drenched violent chaos of an unnamed African civil war. The story is harrowing, brutal and heartbreaking, yet the cinematography is so beautiful, the camerawork so sensitive and perfectly executed that the pain is brought to the surface not through overwrought melodrama but through quiet beauty meshed with violent reality. Komona’s tale will rip your heart out for sure, but her survival is not the result of some Western Deus Ex Machina, some prince on a white horse, or helicopter for World Relief. Rather Komona’s survival is a result of her own will, her personal strength, her instincts, and her ability to continue to move forward and keep herself alive even as her world is crushing in on her.
So no, War Witch is not the kind of movie we usually see about Africa. This is not United Nations Cinema and a vehicle for white people to feel bad about Third World struggles so they can feel good about themselves for feeling bad. Rather, War Witch delivers African Realism like we’ve never seen on the screen before. It is experiential cinema, and the experience is not filtered through the propaganda of Hollywood or Western culture. War Witch is the tale of heartbreaking survival in an environment where the odds against survival are stacked as deeply as the boxes of AK47s which young children wield against an unnamed government army. But through the set location, mechanisms of production, cinematography and acting, the film allows the audience to breathe even in a seemingly suffocating and hopeless world. We are given a chance to feel and experience the plight of Komona, yet without a didactic Western imprint.
Komona’s story could be called a coming of age story, but that is too tame a phrase for this film. If Hollywood made this movie, perhaps it would be a coming of age story. It would undoubtedly involve some sort of Western intervention – the Peace Corps, missionaries, the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, or maybe even Bono or Madonna. But the young protagonist in this film isn’t even allowed to come of age. Rather Komona’s childhood is violently ripped away from her, and she is thrust into a tale of survival against all odds in a landscape whose bloody and violent history rustles in every leaf on every tree and every blade of grass in the film. For the entire 90 minutes we are immersed in Komona’s life within her African culture. There is not one single white person to offset, dilute, or Westernize this exceptionally harrowing and heartbreaking vision of life in the Congo. In other words, this is not Out of Africa, The Constant Gardener or Blood Diamond. War Witch is African Realism, and realism in the Congo includes traditional practices of African magic and ritual combined with guns, child soldiers, chaos and a landscape soaked with the blood of its violent history.
The only image of a white person who appears in the entire film is Jean-Claude Van Damme’s distorted and blurred face projected from a shitty VHS tape of Universal Soldier projected on a beat-up TV that is used for a theater to entertain (and indoctrinate) the army of children with guns. The children applaud with glee and raise their guns in celebration and victory as the credits of the movie role and they identify with the plight and victory of Van Damme’s vigilante rebel hero. Other elements of Western culture are strewn through the film like so much litter. The film begins with Komona’s face staring from behind a commercial banner which provides a makeshift wall for her shantytown house. The banner literally frames her face before the rebels arrive, kill off the adults in the village, and capture the children as soldiers. The film ends with Komona playing out her final struggle while wearing a t-shirt with the brand ABERCROMBIE emblazoned across its bloody and dirt smeared front. So while Komona’s story is grounded completely within its Congo setting, the imprint of Western culture certainly exists but not in any heroic sense by a long shot.
In fact, the rebel army that captures Komona and is led by a leader simply known as Great Tiger barters in the mineral coltan and exploits his child soldiers not just to fight against the government army but also to mine this mineral which is exported and sold to make cell phones. Nearly 80% of the world supply of coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The children are taught to see the mineral as the source of magic power (particularly that of its rebel leader) when in reality it is just a natural resource being sold to the profit of few at the expense of many, including children. So ties to Western culture certainly exist in the film, but not in a very favorable light.
This brings me to the title of the film War Witch and Komona’s story. The film opens with a pan of the shantytown where Komona lives. Komona’s mother braids her hair as we hear Komona’s voice begin to narrate her tale in a voiceover that runs throughout the film. Komona tells her story to her unborn child, and she prays to God that she won’t hate the baby. The words she speaks are so brutal in contrast to the image of the innocent twelve year old child walking out into the sun, her hair spiked with the braids her mother just gave her. Komona bounces playfully on a wooden board, and the fragility of the board, the fact that it can crack at any moment, sets the tone for the world that is about to collapse around this twelve year old girl. Smoke from war rises beyond the grassy planes where Komona plays. Everything in this opening picture is a painful contradiction. Here we see a young girl carving childhood joy out of a precarious landscape of poverty and violence. She turns her head to a sound in the distance, and in a flash her world rips apart as she runs screaming for the people of her village to take cover. The rebel army arrives, slaughters the adults and captures the children to serve as its soldiers.
In a scene of unbearable pain and tension, the rebels place an AK47 in Komona’s hands and tell her to shoot her parents or the soldiers will violently butcher them with machetes. The parents implore Komona quietly to go ahead and shoot them. Komona pulls the trigger and rapid gunfire punctuates the tears that roll down her cheeks. Her braided hair is the last trace of her childhood as she walks out with the soldiers in a state of shock. At that moment, the twelve year old Komona is thrust abruptly into a violent adult world where all she can do is fight for her survival, a world where she learns “to turn the tears inside her eyes” so they can’t be seen and she won’t be beaten.
Enslaved by the rebel army, Komona covers her braids with a cloth band. In other words, the last trace of her childhood is covered with garments of war. She and the other child soldiers are given AK47s and told that the guns are their mother and their father now. Their ancestral traditions have been replaced by the violence of war. The children walk through the Congo landscape weighed down by ammunition and sacks of coltan.
This all sounds brutally harrowing, and it is. But what moves the film beyond a relentlessly hopeless, bleak and violent tale of one girl’s struggle is the way in which Nguyen blends traditional African Vodun (spiritual magic) practices with the hard reality of war and violence and the way the cinematography heightens this blend. From the onset of Komona’s capture by the rebels, magic, war and violence are all mixed up. The cinematography literally saturates the screen with color and light, propelling this tragic and violent tale into a kind of magical realm that has been usurped by the forces of civil war. Magic is as much a part of the reality of this film as the war that is being fought. One young soldier tosses a handful of rocks and reads their position to determine the troop’s next tactical maneuver as if he is reading tea leaves. When the new children recruits are given their AK47s, it is done with ritualistic song and dance combined with a celebratory shower of gunfire, a coming of age ritual performed with bullets instead of herbs.
In order to make life in the frontlines more bearable, the child soldiers drink hallucinatory “magic milk” that comes from tree sap. This alters their sense of reality, and turns violence into a dream instead of a nightmare. When Komona takes her first drink, she wanders through the jungle hallucinating. She stumbles onto a road and has a vision of two ghosts of the dead. They warn Komona to run because government forces are coming. Komona yells at her rebel group to flee, but it’s too late. Gun fire explodes from the jungle as if the landscape itself has been transformed into a weapon, and every single child from Komona’s village is shot dead except for her.
As the lone survivor, Komona is named “War Witch” by rebel leader Great Tiger. The rebels celebrate Komona’s magical contribution to their guerilla efforts by shooting off their guns into the night. The night sky explodes with orange fireworks from gunfire from automatic weapons. The troops celebrate their new “War Witch” in an apocalyptic vision of chaos and ritual. Komona, on the other hand, sits quietly shut off from the revelry, her face a portrait of inverted stone. Great Tiger may have named her a War Witch, but she is a reluctant witch. All she knows is death, brutality, pain and blood. She is named witch simply as a tool for Great Tiger to exert power over his enslaved troops and hold them in his spell, and Komona will be killed off as soon as she ceases to be valuable. Not a lot of magic in that formula. The close-up of Komona’s resigned face cuts to a brief scene in the middle of the celebration when Great Tiger guns down one of his rebels for stealing some of the coveted coltan.
Guns, as witnessed in this scene and many others in the film, are directly connected to ritual and magic. They have been integrated into the violent culture as much as Vodun magic itself. Children wear rifles as if the weapons are extensions of their bodies, prosthetic limbs. Their young bodies are laden with ammunition straps like the costumes of ancestral warrior rituals. The rifles are lifted and fired in celebration. They are used to slaughter the enemy as if they are divine weapons. The powder from bullets is used to light fires. Komona is given a “magic” AK47 with carved Vodun images on its grip – the Witch Gun. But there is no magic in these rifles, and Komona knows it, just like she is no War Witch. In Komona’s world, tradition has been replaced by ammunition. The kind of blood sacrifice witnessed in this film has nothing to do with offerings to the gods, but is senseless violence without reason or spiritual connection.
Komona hooks up with a fellow young soldier (one of her original captors) Magicien when she glimpses him performing magic in his sleeping quarters. Magicien, an albino soldier, shows her strings of stones and bones that represent his dead ancestors and a wing of a bird that represents freedom of the spirit. Komona looks on hopefully as if she can find a glimpse of something beyond the hell she is living. Magicien opens her palm and places a string tied around a cluster of rocks in Komona’s hand. He shakes violently with the magical energy of the talisman, infusing it with Vodun spirit, and he tells Komona to keep it in her pocket to protect her from war. Magicien himself wears a similar talisman around his neck to protect him. But in the end, the talismans are made of rocks, string, and other junk and only allow for momentary glimpses of possible protection, a small taste for magic in a world where AK47s and machetes trump magical powers. Magicien and others infuse Vodun rituals and talismans with faith because they need to hold onto something that is greater than the sum of their reality (death, blood, death, blood).
In a bloody shoot-out on a great rocky expanse, both Magicien and Komona let lose all their anger, rage and confusion as they fire violently at the encroaching enemy. Komona lifts her “magic rifle” and fires while screaming. Magicien fires endless rounds through a mounted machine gun. After the battle, a lone AK47 stands mounted as Komona watches the ghosts of the dead move silently over the rocks. The ghosts Komona sees are filmed beautifully and subtly almost like whispers as their white bodies and empty eyes roam the war-torn landscape. Their beauty fills the ghosts with both grace and tragedy.
After the shootout on the rocks, Magicien convinces Komona to flee the rebels. He proclaims his love for her and asks her to marry him. In a momentary glimpse of real magic and sincere beauty and tenderness and an attempt to reclaim the ancestry that was stolen from her, Komona proclaims that she will only marry Magicien if he gives her a white rooster which is the African tradition she learned from her father. Magicien takes his charge seriously and embarks on an often humorous and heartwarming hunt for a white rooster, providing a window of relief in a film that is suffocatingly brutal. Magicien eventually finds the white rooster in a community of albinos like himself, and he trades his magic for the bird. The albino community is filmed through an overexposed sun-soaked lens and shows happy families, children and adults smiling and living freely. There is not a gun in sight. It is a tiny window of possible utopia in the hell that is Magicien and Komona’s world.
With the white rooster strapped to the back of a motorcycle, Komona and Magicien are happily married and in love. They go to live with Magicien’s uncle “The Butcher” whose entire family was slaughtered in war. Komona and Magicien laugh and kiss in the fields with the grass blowing around them. But there is tremendous tension under the laughter and the smiles. The fragility of their connection blows through the landscape. The cinematography captures a landscape in a constant state of agitation. We know that the rustle of the grass could be the result of a playful breeze or could be a disruption from the feet of soldiers moving toward them. The landscape is filled with beauty and potential danger. There are secrets lurking in its recesses, and those secrets come bearing weapons. Danger rises violently and breaks the magic spell that briefly holds Magicien and Komona together. In a violent clash between love and pain, magic and reality, Magicien is butchered before Komona’s eyes, and she is taken as a sex slave to another rebel leader.
At this point, Komona goes into aggressive survival mode. She fights off her slave by combining magic with cold hard tactical strategy. She inserts a seed pod in her vagina, an act that could seem like a Vodun ritual, but which is actually a tactical maneuver to castrate the man who rapes her. She then wields a machete and brings him down with the force of a lion. The magic is gone for Komona, War Witch or not. The only magic she has is her own strength to survive, which proves to be a miraculous force.
Bleeding and pregnant with her rapist’s baby, Komona moves through her fourteenth year in a haze of extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She thinks everyone and everything is a threat. Her internal state of self-imposed disassociation turns into a toxic cocktail of unspoken outrage. She eventually wanders off alone where she rows a canoe back to her homeland, pausing along the way and doubling over in labor pains. She delivers her baby on the shore entirely on her own, pushing it out of her body as if she is pushing every bad thing that she has witnessed in her young life, every horror she has committed under force and that has been committed against her.
With her baby in her arms, Komona returns to her home to bury the ghosts of her parents who have been haunting her since she was forced to kill them. Komona stands in the spot where she held the AK47 in her 12 year old arms and fired on her parents. She looks at the bullet holes and blood stains on the linen blowing in a dirty breeze, and it is utterly devastating, the only material left of her childhood home.
In the dirt on the ground she finds the broken remains of the comb her mother used to braid her hair during those last moments of Komona’s childhood. The comb had been stomped on, crushed, and shattered by rebel soldiers. She takes the comb’s broken body and a shirt and performs a burial in the sand. In this scene, she sings a song setting her spirit and her parents’ spirits free as she buries the ghosts of her parents, her lost childhood, and everything that was stolen from her. Finally the tears she hasn’t shed run quietly down her cheeks.
We see these tears as we always seen Komona, in absolute close-up. Her face fills the screen. The emotions locked inside her stone face are as volatile a force as the landscape she occupies. Every moment she is filmed, the strength she exerts to contain her emotions pushes out of the frame of the screen. Rachel Mwanza, the young actress who plays Komona, brings such enormous emotional presence to the character that it feels like we embody her as we are immersed in this violent world through a child’s experiences. Every scene carries a tremendous sense of immediacy and shock.
One of the reasons the film is so emotionally effective is because Nguyen uses non-actors. Rachel Mwanza was actually a child living on the streets when she was recruited for this role. Most of the actors can’t read. They were given only a page or two of script at a time and had no indication of what was going to happen next in the film’s story, so every act in the movie played out as if it would in real life – unpredictably. The actors responded with immediate emotion that was captured on film. This is not highly polished and rehearsed Hollywood filmmaking. This is largely unpracticed spontaneous human emotion, and it seeps through the film as densely as the beautifully rich cinematography.
By the end of the film, we have followed young Komona as she is forced to kill her own parents, pick up an AK47 to fight government soldiers, become enslaved by rebel leaders, go on a hunt for a magic white rooster, watch the ground literally drip with blood from those she is forced to kill and those who she watches get killed, and finally give birth to the child of her rapist. Certainly this could be the material of overwrought melodrama, but the film never once lapses into that exploitive Westernized territory. It stays true to its unique brand of harrowing cinematic magic grounded in the brutal realism of the Congo and the history of senseless violence and civil war that have soaked that land in blood. In War Witch magic and the real are combined to show a tale of survival on its own brutal terms. At the end of the film, when Komona falls asleep in the back of a truck, she has saved herself through her own perseverance and resourcefulness, not from some divine intervention, magic spell or Western aid. Her baby resting in the arms of a stranger, Komona lays her head on a sack, and she finally falls asleep. At age fourteen, she has her whole life ahead of her, or maybe she doesn’t . . .
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at email@example.com.
by KIM NICOLINI
By now, almost everyone who’s reading this has probably either seen Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and loved or hated it, or feels they don’t need to see it to reach a conclusion. It’s not the sort of film to inspire a mild response. Django Unchained is a blood-soaked and bullet-fueled Spaghetti Western love story that takes on the subject of American slavery by making room for black characters in popular genre films that have predominantly been the territory of whites. Making copious use of the N-word, striking a delicate balance between the use of racial stereotypes and their dismantling, and exploding with blood, humor, violence, and pulp, Tarantino’s latest provocation, a worthy successor to the alternate history of Inglorious Basterds, leaves audiences unsure what to make of it, even as they cheer for its black hero.
Shouldn’t they despise the film for being so irreverent about the subject of slavery, which Hollywood has usually treated with sanctimonious reverence? Or does the film’s cinematic violence (both literally and generically) explode racism and bring the horror of slavery into a new, more visceral cinematic experience of the brutality of America’s role in the slave trade? I’ve seen the movie three times since it was released in December, and I have to confess that I have definitely reached the latter conclusion. I have yet to become bored with the movie. Nor have I been convinced that it’s racist or reactionary as some critics have stated. Ultimately, I see Django Unchained as a triumph against cautious liberal cinema, the safe packaging of slavery into distancing tidy narratives, and the limits typically imposed on black roles in popular Hollywood cinema. Django Unchained gives the audience a black hero who rises not only out of the abomination of slavery but out of the constraints of cinema itself.
Tarantino’s film has no pretense of being a reverent piece of historical cinema or a classic slave emancipation tale. In fact, Tarantino’s tale of slave revenge and romantic love in America’s Antebellum South intentionally disrupts history, much like its predecessor Inglorious Basterds, and blows-up the Big House of cinematic reverence to allow a mass audience to confront slavery and the role of blacks in film, thereby shining much-needed light on a very dark side of American history.
With the gun-slinging Django riding through the landscape and taking down bad white guys (and they are BAD!) to save his love and avenge his abusers, the movie does on many levels play like a mash-up of the Blaxploitation film and Spaghetti Western. Certainly, the movie contains elements of both genres, but it is also so much more. The film could be called a “Spaghetti Southern” (as Tarantino refers to it in the January 2013 issue of American Cinematographer). It takes elements of the Spaghetti Western (which features an outsider in an alien, hostile environment) and relocates them to the American South. What could be more alien in the Antebellum South than a gun-toting free cowboy black man? And what could be more hostile to this improbable icon of liberty than the white men of the South? As in a classic Western narrative, a very clear line is drawn between the “good” (the avenging slave and the man who freed him) and “evil” (the plantation owners and slave overseers) forces at play in the film, and, despite what some of Django Unchained’s critics have said, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever about who we want to come out on top.
The black hero is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is freed by a German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz in a performance as great as the one he delivers as the slick “Jew Hunter” in Inglorious Basterds). Once freed, Django learns the trade of bounty hunting as a student to Schultz and demonstrates his sharp-shooting abilities as he plucks off any number of bad white guys with clean precision, a skill set he will eventually employ to rescue his true love Broomhilda. Following a classic fairytale structure, Django and Schultz travel to the evil kingdom (a Southern Plantation known as Candie-Land) to rescue the damsel in distress (Django’s slave wife). Leonardo DiCaprio plays the evil king/plantation owner Calvin Candie who gets his rocks off pitting slaves against each other in a blood sport known as Mandigo fighting, in which black men literally fight to the death for the entertainment of whites. And Samuel L. Jackson tears up the screen with his over-the-top performance as Stephen – the Uncle Tom “House Nigger” who is glued to Calvin Candie’s side and proves to be one of the most diabolical characters ever put on screen.
Just summarizing the main actors in the film illustrates the big can of worms contained in Django Uncained. Besides the role of an Uncle Tom, the shocking display of Mandingo fighting and Tarantino’s use of pulp genres like the Western and the Romantic Fairytale to tell a tale of the most brutal institution in American history, we have to take into consideration the use of the N-word which flies as hard and fast as bullets in this movie. I’ve already used the word in referring to Stephen as the House Nigger, and that is only one of multitudes of times the word is fired during the three hours of the movie. Some critics (most notably Spike Lee) have taken issue with Tarantino’s use of the word. How can a white man use the word “nigger” in a film?
Well, if we want to talk about the historical record, a tale of slavery in the South and the racist and violent history of the American economy would be hard to tell without including the N-word, unless the screenplay were as whitewashed as the pristine monuments to white supremacy that Southern plantations were. But whitewashed is exactly what has largely been done to the subject of slavery in film, and it’s about time that someone pulls the white sheet off the face of the subject. Shockingly, because it’s played for laughs, Django Unchained even features a sequence in which members of a proto-Klu Klux Klan are forced to do just that — pull the white bags off their heads. Revealing the ugly and brutal truth of racism means disrupting reverent expectations of the subject by mixing it up with pulp cinema, and that means deploying the N-word in rapid fire as frequently as it was used in the time. To paraphrase renowned slavery scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. from an interview he conducted with Tarantino, to tell a tale of slavery and racism in America and not use the N-word would be to lie. So if we’re going to tell the truth about slavery and racism, the N-word must be spoken. Just to be absolutely clear, then, if I use the word in this essay, it is both because I am quoting the film and the historical treatment of blacks it refuses to whitewash.
Now that I’ve addressed the N-Word, let’s take a minute to think about what exactly Django Unchained is. The film opens in a dark Texas forest with a chain-gang of slaves. The black faces of the men merge with the dark forest, their white eyes glowing in the night. Two menacing white men on horses are leading the slaves to the market to be sold. This scene sets the stage for a traditional emancipation narrative. When Dr. Schultz arrives and frees Django, the camera closes in on Django’s bloody and brutalized ankle. Django’s entire foot and ankle fill the screen as Schultz removes the shackle and “unchains” Django. Django then shucks off his tattered blanket, bares his whip-scarred back and raises his arms in a gesture of freedom and vengeance (e.g. Black Power).
Certainly Django’s scarred and muscle-bound body could be seen as both a fetish object and a stereotype in this scene. This represents the traditional role of black men in film (when they’re not playing subservient emasculated “House Niggers” like Samuel Jackson’s Stephen). If Tarantino shows us this startling and unpleasant image, however, it is in order to set in motion a narrative that will undo racial stereotypes and cinematic expectations. He first creates the stereotypical scenario (the emancipated slave narrative), and then he dumps the black character into untraditional roles (the cowboy, the Western buddy, the chivalrous romantic hero).
Part of the reason Django Unchained succeeds in emancipating itself from the constraints of cautious liberal cinema and its safe historical distancing of the subject of slavery is by emancipating its main character from the trappings of traditional black roles in film. It undoes racial stereotypes by first exposing them and then either dismantling them by creating untraditional roles (Django) or blowing them up entirely (Stephen). Once Django shucks off that blanket and lifts his arms, he also shucks off the traditional emancipation story and everything that is expected from a “safe” film about slavery. Crucially, Django’s role isn’t so much to free the slaves as it is to free the image of the slave from the shackles of both the racism of classic Hollywood narratives and the political correctness of the post-Civil Rights Era.
Once Django Unchained leaves behind the traditional slave emancipation story, the story takes us through a variety of cinematic genres drenched with plenty of blood and humor as Django’s character develops and ultimately triumphs. Django Unchained uses popular pulp genres to take on the deadly serious subject of slavery and the bloody history of the American South. While some have criticized the film for turning the somber subject of slavery into pulp entertainment, the very fact that Django Unchained traffics in “low” stereotypes is what makes it effective. As we follow Django on his mission to save his wife through Tarantino’s network of pulp genres, not only do we grow to identify with Django, but we are able to share in his victory. Sure, guns are fired, walls are splattered with blood, jokes are made, and visceral violence plays before us, but through pulp, violence, and traditional popular narrative devices, Tarantino erases the cautious distance between the audience and his movie’s slave hero. We are able to feel, see and experience slavery without the desensitizing insulation of identity politics. This collapses the distance between the superficial safety of our times and the brutal reality of our history, making the horrors of the past more viscerally real than when they are neatly packaged in cautious historically accurate cinema.
To simply read Django Unchained as a slave revenge/blaxploitation/Western mash-up would short-change all the genre bending the film does to 1) effectively blow the fuck out of black roles in film and 2) make the audience identify with and cheer for the film’s black hero. When Django mounts one of his former captor’s horses and rides into a small Texas town with his emancipator Schultz, the film shifts gears, moving into the territory of the Spaghetti Western. We’ve seen this town before, its old wooden buildings and dirt-filled streets situated in the barren landscape between nowhere and nowhere else. White people walk out of buildings and stand on sidewalks shocked and outraged at the sight of Django riding on a horse alongside Schultz. One of the townspeople whispers, “Look! It’s a nigger on a horse!” When Schultz questions what their problem is, Django blatantly says, “They just ain’t used to seeing a nigger on a horse.”
The doubling of this line, first from the white woman and then from the black man is funny and the audience laughs, but it’s also damn true. Not only are the people in the town not used to seeing “a nigger on a horse,” but neither is the Hollywood audience. The Western is a white man’s genre, but Django rides his horse right through the genre when he rides into the town. This is partly how the film destabilizes white packaging of race in movies and in American history. When Schultz and Django force the town to accept the “nigger on the horse” because he is there as part of “legal business,” the audience also is being asked to accept him. And the audience does. All three times I saw the movie, everyone in the audience – black, white, old, young – cheered for this “nigger on a horse.”
It turns out that Schultz doesn’t just unshackle Django out of the goodness of his heart. Schultz purchases Django (and ultimately his freedom) because it is within his economic interest. Schultz is a bounty hunter, and he needs Django to identify three dirty, rotten overseers – the Brittle Brothers – for whom there is a large bounty on their heads. Django knows the Brittle brothers from his former plantation, because they are the men responsible for whipping him and his beloved wife Broomhilda. Schultz tells Django that he abhors the institution of slavery, but that even he will use it for his economic advantage. Since he “owns” Django, he insists that Django work for him to identify the men who have a large price tag on their heads. When Django asks what a bounty hunter does, Schultz explains that he’s “in the business of selling corpses.”
Coupling bounty hunting with slavery is brilliant. The pairing of these two businesses that trade in human lives underscores the business of violence in this country and the bloody legacy of the American economic landscape. Slavery was an atrocity, an abomination, a dehumanizing and brutal institution that was perceived as acceptable because it was good for “business.” It fueled one of the most successful economic enterprises in American history – cotton. Interestingly, Tarantino also shows how the race card can be thrown out the window, when it is within the economic interest of whites. Everything comes down to business. When Schultz realizes that Django is a perfect shot and that he would make an excellent business partner in the bounty hunting business, race becomes transparent between the two characters.
by KIM NICOLINI
I saw my first film of the new year last night – The Central Park Five, a documentary about the five black and Latino boys who were falsely accused, bullied into confessing, and then served time for the rape and beating of the Central Park Jogger back in 1989. After serving 6-13 years in prison, the boys were exonerated of the crimes when the true rapist confessed and his DNA matched that found on the crime scene.
Certainly this film is a devastating story of racial injustice and the failure of the American criminal system. The film was made by famed PBS documentary filmmaker Ken Burns based on a book by his daughter Sarah Burns, and it largely focuses on the stories of the surviving boys (who are now men), their families, and archival footage.
The police, lawyers, and District Attorney involved in the case refused to participate. They are included in the documentary via archival footage, including the videotaped confessions which were extorted from the boys, four of whom were fourteen years old at the time of the crime and one who was sixteen.
During their 30 hours plus of interrogation, they had no legal representation, no child advocates, no social services presence, and no contact with their parents and family. They eventually confessed, being fed the details by the cops, simply to “make it stop.” Their confessions were inconsistent, full of errors and mistakes. None of the boys’ DNA was found at the crime scene; likewise, none of the DNA of the victim was found on the boys, though the crime was brutal and bloody. The boys were convicted on the sole evidence of the false confessions that were forced out of them by the brutal interrogation of the Central Park Precinct detectives.
Certainly this is a tragic tale of race in this country. It is particularly resonant after recently seeing Django Unchained. (I’ll be publishing my essay on that film next week). What is most interesting to me is how this incident was used by the media and governing forces as a catalyst event to propagate and reignite racial fear in this country. The terminology used to reference the boys by the so-called liberal media was as dehumanizing as that of the Jim Crow south. The boys were referred to as a “wild pack” who were “wilding” and terrorizing white people. They were spoken and written about as if they were wild animals, something less than human.
I remember the incident well. I was a woman jogger at the time, and I recall how this single incident framed a new Environment of Fear which was based on the threat of the black man against the white woman. It is the same fear that was propagated during Reconstruction (post Civil War America), when it was within the economic interest of white power to keep black men demonized.
It must be noted, that the Central Park Five event occurred in the wake of the ongoing fallout from the economic recession following Reaganomics. During hard economic times, the country likes to find a scapegoat for the economic chaos and despair that permeates the environment. In the case of the Central Park Five, the media, police and government forces created Wilding and the fear of Blacks in Packs. Also, it must be noted that censorship of black music was instituted at this time.
Certainly demonizing “the racial other” is nothing new in this country, but I see the Central Park Five incident as a kind of historical pivotal moment in the Post Civil Rights Era when American governing forces began re-escalating its reign of terror on people of color, immigrants and the disenfranchised (see the institution of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security for evidence). We have to remember that this country and its economic base were largely founded on racial demonization and dehumanization. Slavery was the economic backbone of early America. When the slaves were freed, many of them ended up packed away in housing projects such as those that tower the streets of Harlem. When housing projects didn’t work to contain America’s Big Ugly History, prisons were expanded and race was largely criminalized. This trend has not stopped to this day and certainly played a role in the Central Park Five.
To me, the most tragic part of the film is that when the boys are finally exonerated of their crimes, they greet this news with a kind of quiet and devastating resignation and acceptance. Certainly they are happy to no longer have to be “registered sex offenders” for the crimes they never committed, but there is also a sense that they feel that “this is just how things are in this country.” And the sad truth is that this is how things are in this country.
One boy who is now a man says with tears in his eyes (I paraphrase), “I will never get those years of my life back. No prom. No high school. They have been taken from me, and I will always have this hole or gap in my life where those years were stolen.” Yet, he also seems to accept it as a fact of life in America, a country that was founded on “stolen lives,” the legacy of which still largely lives and breathes up in Harlem where these boys lived.
It is a sobering and sad film. It is also critical to revisit this case to remember what it stood for as emblematic of the paradigm shift that occurred during the Reagan years and continued as we moved into the era of ultra conservatism that continues to dominate our political landscape today. We have not come a long way, baby. Not by a long shot.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini gmail com.