The Divergent Series, the latest in young adult novel adaptations, shares with a vast majority of science fiction films a rather startling and unexplained plot thread. It isn’t the totalitarian government or the chosen white savior (though both can be found here). It seems the one thing almost any film set in our future can agree on is that some inexplicable plague will arise that only targets minorities, devastating races of the darker variety. Sometimes it leaves no survivors, as some of the popular films in the 1950s depicted.
But lately filmmakers have been more optimistic, predicting a scant amount of survivors, or perhaps just one. Moviegoers often call this lone survivor the “token black character,” a role Zoe Kravitz takes over in “Divergent” and, coincidentally, her father Lenny Kravitz also once embodied in the more popular “Hunger Games” series. But now that term comes off as insulting; such a role now reads as noble and tragic.
Naturally, no filmmaker seems to agree on precisely when this terrible disease will strike: “The Hunger Games” is estimated to take place thousands of years into the future, “Divergent” is described as set in the “near future,” while Steven Spielberg’s infinitely superior “Minority Report” from 2002 takes place in the closer-than-you-think future of 2054. That film was set in Washington, D.C., often fondly referred to as the “chocolate city,” though clearly no longer in that universe; one can count the number of black people in the film on one hand.
In all these films, the plague must have happened long before the events of the film, and like slavery, it is evidently a tragedy that most of society would rather never be mentioned again. No one seems to make note of the lack of black people walking around, and in not one interview has a director mentioned it.
Do these filmmakers know something we don’t? Have they gotten together with the world’s leading scientists and discovered a possible strain of bacteria just waiting to decimate the minority population? Perhaps it’s something more sinister; wishful thinking on their part.
And yet, both of those possibilities are somehow a lot less troubling than this: that Hollywood just doesn’t want to hire black or hispanic actors, that they are simply not acknowledging all moviegoing audiences or the increasing minority population in America. After all, according to pew research, the non Hispanic white population will become a minority by 2050, four years before Spielberg’s vision of a largely Hispanic and black-less D.C.
White audiences should be aware of this discrepancy as well, right? Apparently not, according to studies done by researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca and the University of Toronto Scarborough. These studies, labeled the “Race Empathy Gap,” revealed a level of comfort and mental stimulation when whites watch actors who look like them on screen that drops considerably when watching non-white actors. It is likely that black and hispanic moviegoers don’t have as severe a reaction watching white actors because white actors have dominated the movie screens since the very first motion pictures.
Anna Everett, a film scholar and professor at USC, notes that whites don’t often take notice when blacks or minorities are in films.
“Even if Whites recognize the exclusion, it will have different meanings for them,” Everett explains in her study on race in the cinema.
What may some of those meanings be? Perhaps that blacks occupy a different world than the ones they’re used to. For many white viewers, the world of a minority is one of concrete and asphalt, the “hood” or the court (of law or basketball, and when it’s the former, we’re seldom the ones in suits). Space ships and large chrome spaces isn’t the milieu whites grant us or even imagine us in. So it should then fall on the working black filmmakers to send us up in space. But sadly few seem willing to pick up that torch. While these black filmmakers will likely take their kids to see something like “Divergent” or the upcoming “Captain America” film, they will be busy making serious dramas about the African-American experience.
Needless to say, no one should begrudge them for that. Films like “Pariah,” “Medicine for Melancholy,” and “Fruitvale Station” are smart and soulful documents of what it can mean to be black in America. But these stories are grounded. If our name isn’t Zoe Saldana, we are rarely allowed to take off.
Kevin Grevioux, an African-American writer of graphic novels and Howard alum, took note of this in an interview with the movie blog “Indiewire”: “How can you think about traveling to another solar system or alien life if you have a problem getting a job or eating on Earth? African-American dreams are more reality-based, and that’s why I think our films have to do with our daily environment more so than alien or science fiction environments.” Biggie’s album “Life After Death” may have been released in 1997, but white people have always known that the sky’s the limit.
For black people, not so much. In his 2012 novel “Telegraph Avenue,” Jewish writer Michael Chabon makes a powerfully perceptive analogy between the African-American experience and the nature of terraforming, changing a planet’s atmosphere and environment, and pantropy, which he defined as “the alteration of the human form and mind to allow survival, even prosperity, on a harsh, unforgiving world.” In his observation, he notes how some black people went for the “epic tragedy” of terraforming.
One thinks of great, fallen leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who gave their lives to change this world. However, much like Chabon’s black, female protagonist, most black people opted for pantropy, adapting and even thriving on an antagonistic world. The implication is that, since being brought here as slaves, blacks were like aliens in America, living in a world strange, foreign, and unforgiving to the unassimilated. If America itself has been a punishing and alien environment for the black race, navigating other alien worlds on film must be almost beyond the imagination of today’s black filmmakers, and certainly beyond that of white filmmakers.
But does all this even matter? It has been decided that the lack of minorities in the sci-fi landscape is simply the result of a nameless, merciless plague, a “Black Plague” you can call it, that all of Hollywood has decided will inevitably strike. In a way, this can be seen as some sympathy on their part. Perhaps they have finally internalized the pain and misery that has befallen black people for so long and are only predicting that it can only get worse from here. Better to believe that, isn’t it? Better to believe their future doesn’t include our existence than to believe that they refuse to acknowledge our existence today.