Always Bet on Black? Looking at who dies first in some 80s action films.

Posted by Charles Reece, February 28, 2010 11:54pm | Post a Comment

The folks over at TV Tropes have a handy system of weights ("scream scores") assigned to character types, called the Sorting Algorithm of Mortality (SAM), that when added up predict who's most likely to die first in a film or TV show. Under the category of race, the SAM gives a weight of 5 out of 5 for black or twofer (the latter being two token minorities represented in one character). At least since Renny Harlin's ironic homage to 80s sci-fi/action films, Deep Blue Sea (1999), the trope that the "black dude dies first" has been taken as a truism among pop culture aficionados. If you'll recall, it was Sam Jackson's Russell Franklin who, during one the actor's trademarked badass speeches, was the first major character to get eaten by a shark. The joke actually compounds two factors that aren't that easy to separate: star power and race. One wouldn't expect Will Smith to be the first to go, so Jackson, being the biggest star in the picture, shouldn't have been either, but his blackness (as the film satirically put it) won out. LL Cool J's Preacher makes explicit reference to the trope throughout the film, and is surprisingly (against the race-based common-sense expectation) saved at the end. But he's the second biggest star in the film (with the possible exception of Thomas Jane, whose character survives too). So are all the joking references to the fate of black men in action films really hitting their target, or are they merely beating a "dead unicorn"? I figure the topic makes for a fitting end to Black History Month here at Amoeblog.


Since this ain't a doctoral thesis and I've limited time to rewatch films, my sample is going to be real limited based on memory, friend's suggestions and to the 80s (since it's that decade that mostly suffers the brunt of the jokes). Still, I believe the four films here were the primary source material for Harlin's film: John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), James Cameron's Aliens (1986), John McTiernan's Predator (1987) and George P. Cosmatos' Leviathan (1989). All four feature an ethically diverse ensemble cast (but with a white star actor being a little more equal than the others) fighting against a newly discovered life form that stands to win the Darwinian struggle. (Click on the titles for plot summaries.)

Carpenter's always been a racially conscious filmmaker, so perhaps it's not all that surprising that his two black characters make it to the final act. As MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Nauls (T.K. Carter) are laying dynamite to blow up the compound and the Thing with it, Nauls goes to investigate a mysterious sound. He's not seen again, but odds of his survival become pretty low when MacReady throws lit dynamite at the alien, laying waste to the entire building. As the explosion spreads from building to building, MacReady meets up with the remaining black character, Childs (Keith David). With no hope of rescue, they share a drink as they wait to die from the cold. The final scene portrays a sort of realpolitik solution to underlying race relations, namely Cold War stalemate:

Childs: How will we make it?
MacReady: Maybe we shouldn't.
Childs: If you're worried about me …
MacReady: If we've got any surprises for each other, I don't think we're in much shape to do anything about it.
Childs: Well, what do we do?
MacReady: Why don't we just … wait here for a little while. See what happens.

As Watchmen attempted to demonstrate, nothing brings people closer than a common fear of the Big Other ... that, and exhaustion.

With all the violent penetration going on in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), in addition to the H.R. Giger's dark, phallic design of the creature itself and the lead being Ripley, a white woman (Sigourney Weaver), it's not hard to read the entire film as a parodic take on racist views of black men and potency. As a friend recently suggested, the fact that one of the last remaining characters is a black man (Parker, played by Yaphet Kotto) helps to subvert/mock such a lingering/repressed fear. However much truth there might or might not be to that reading, it's clear that Cameron's sequel takes all of the subtextual sex out of the explicit violence. Likewise, it lacks the literary, cinematic and design pedigree of Scott's film, and with this textual simplification as just a good action yarn came a bunch of generic character types, some of them ethnic, if not exactly racial.

Marked for an early death by the SAM is the film's twofer character of Private Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein), who's both Mexican and a lesbian. Unfortunately, to symbolize her dual-token status, she dresses and speaks in a pachuco style -- wearing a bandana, of course -- and is so butch that she out-muscles most of the men (she carries one of the biggest guns). That's a lot of targeted stereotypes, yet she survives until the final act, valiantly giving her life to save what remains of her team (albeit, all of whom are white). 

The two black characters, Private Frost (Ricco Ross) and Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews), are among the first to die, but they do so along with more than half of the team as they go up against the aliens. Frost is killed by the "friendly fire" from one his impaled teammates (see above) and Apone is shown looking up at a descending alien just before his helmet cam projects white noise. I guess this kind of supports the black-guy-dies-first intuition, but I'm betting Mexicans and lesbians have more to complain about, since the worst cliché being used on a black man is that of the war genre's gruff, cigar-chomping Sarge.

Hardly the poster boy for multiculturalism, Arnold Schwarzenegger made a career in films that killed off one cultural identity after another. On the one hand, Predator could be considered his most racially sensitive film, since the two black characters, Dillon (Carl Weathers) and Mac (Bill Duke), are given the most complex characterizations and dramatic scenes (such as they are in a film that primarily exists to blow shit up, rainforest included). On the other, the film does trot out all sorts of stereotypes about American Indians in the character of Billy (Sonny Landham), the group tracker who mystically stares into the trees, sensing "heap big trouble." Rather than continuing to run from the predatory alien, Billy throws away his gun and chooses to face the creature with nothing but a bare chest and big knife, undoubtedly showing another warrior soul the respect it deserves. Regardless, the black guys and the Indian make it through most of act two -- longer than most of the white cast members.

An Alien ripoff set underwater, Leviathan has the longest lifespan for a condemned black character, Justin Jones (Ernie Hudson). With the two white love interests/leads, Beck (Peter Weller) and Elizabeth (Amanda Pays), he makes it all the way to the ocean's surface at the end, having survived a bloodthirsty, morphing monster, the implosion of the underwater base and a shark attack, only to be seemingly drowned by the last-minute reappearance of said monster as the rescue chopper is a mere 50 feet away. If he wasn't dead from the drowning, he was surely killed when (recalling MacReady and the dynamite) Beck throws a grenade into the monster's mouth. Not exactly a nod towards equal representation, but definitely not support for the SAM's scream scoring, either.  And, as with Aliens, blacks fare a good sight better than Mexicans, who are here "represented" by DeJesus (Michael Carmine), a researcher of some sort who looks more like a drug dealer from some bad 70s film.

So what did I learn? Well, it would seem that race, ethnicity and even sexual identity aren't the best predictors for who's going to die first in 80s sci-fi-action films. A better question is who's going to last until the end? The biggest star, of course. And there is where race comes into it, since there weren't that many non-whites who were given the chance to carry a big budget spectacle. As Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Sam Jackson, etc. became increasingly bankable stars in the 90s, the black male began to survive all the perils of the action genre. One might say that racism can't beat the abstracted exchange value of actors in an amoral market economy. And, finally, the representation of blacks was a good deal more "progressive" (complex and less stereotypical) in these movies than that of certain other minority types.

Relevant Tags

Black History Month (134), The Thing (5), Aliens (12), Predator (2), Leviathan (1), Deep Blue Sea (1)