Mighty White of You: Juxtaposing Cowboys & Aliens and Attack the Block

Posted by Charles Reece, September 12, 2011 09:06am | Post a Comment
What follows is a slightly altered version of a two-part series of posts I recently wrote, now combined as my entry for Pussy Goes Grrr's Juxtaposition Blogathon

In the realm of categories, black is always marked as a color [...], and is always particularizing; whereas white is not anything really, not an identity, not a particularizing quality, because it is everything -- white is no color because it is all colors. This property of whiteness, to be everything and nothing, is the source of its representational power.
-- p. 127, Richard Dyer's "White" from The Matter of Images

Reading Dyer's above quoted essay reminded me of the classic Saturday Night Live skit where Eddie Murphy went undercover as a white man to discover what whiteness is really like. He receives a free newspaper, gets cash from a bank without any credit and, once the city bus is free of minorities, the whites have a party. Instead of whiteness being the default or normative position from which every other ethnicity is otherness, Murphy's blackness is the norm and whiteness is seen as excess.

A less ironic and more recent example of what Dyer's getting at is the colorizing of Marvel's superheroes: Nick Fury is black in the films and Ultimate line; the Ultimate version of Peter Parker was killed off and replaced by a half black, half latino kid named Miles Morales; Kingpin was played by a black man in the Daredevil film; and more controversial among the Aryan supremacists was the decision to make the Norse god Heimdall black in the Thor film. The difference here between whiteness and otherness is that Peter Parker isn't first marked as white, second as Spider-Man, but Miles Morales is foremost a mixed ethnicity and secondly a superpowered human. If he were to live with his aunt at a near poverty level, that would be part of his ethnic narrative, whereas it's not really a part of Peter's being white. For Peter, those are qualities which merely help the audience sympathize with his struggle as an individual (they aren't anything but dramatic attributes within a particular narrative). The white narrative, through its dominance, seen as normative, is hidden, only revealed by contrast with what falls outside, or underneath.

Murphy ends his skit with a warning, that he and his black friends have a lot of makeup, so beware, the white face we trust just might be black underneath. What would've J. Jonah Jameson and his readership made of a black man underneath the mask of Spider-Man? The webslinger might've been maligned as a public menace, but he wasn't a black menace. It was the decade of black empowerment and radical politics, after all. This fear of contamination, or corruption of status quo values, is most obvious and dangerous in racialist movements' desire for purity (cf. Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik's manifesto), but when it appears in alien invasion films (in which I'd include demonic possession, such as The Exorcist, alongside the existential substitution in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers) it can serve as a thought experiment on Whiteness (or dominant power positions, which tend to be white in these stories). In these fantasies of contamination, the dominant power is reconfigured as a minority one. There are exceptions, such as District 9 and Starship Troopers (both of which draw a parallel with the aliens and currently existing minority powers), but the primary conceit is placing the dominant power into the role of its other under threat of extinction by a more powerful alien race or presence. Two such fantasies that deal explicitly with Whiteness have popped up recently, Jon Favreau's Cowboys & Aliens and Joe Cornish's Attack the Block. The first treats it as race, the second as class. Intended as diversionary summer entertainment foremost, both end up comforting illusions for Whiteness as the normative structure. 

EW: So the idea of visiting an indigenous culture, invaders who in the Westerns would be the pioneers and settlers, is it reversed in this story? Are the cowboys essentially the natives and aliens are like the conquering Europeans?

JF: Yeah, in the frustration of not having the technology to allow you to prevail. It’s always the low-tech culture that feels powerless when faced with an enemy that has technology on their side. And of course the culture with technology on their side feels like it’s manifest destiny: They’ve been granted this gift by the divine and intend to use it. So yes, it is a bit of a flip, because the cowboys find themselves as the low-tech culture. And what’s also fun is it allows the cowboys and Native Americans to come together, which would be impossible had there not been a greater common enemy.
-- Entertainment Weekly's interview with Jon Favreau

Cowboys & Aliens takes place in 1873, Arizona, when it was a territory and Geronimo's campaign against both Mexican and U.S. troops was underway (he surrendered in 1886). Many of the post-Leone western tropes appear (without his panache, unfortunately): a gunman without a name (he's amnesic), a town ruled by a cutthroat capitalist (the law is bought and paid for), and a tough-minded beauty who's able to take care of herself (except when the no-name anti-hero needs to show that he's not a complete bastard). What's new here is, of course, the insertion of aliens. They're more of the clickety-clack bug type that's overwhelmed the genre of late. I suppose it helps convey the infestation motif, but it would be nice to see a species modeled on fish or birds. Aliens rarely, if ever, invade our water supply (The Man Who Fell to Earth was too polite to be called an invader) and Hitchcock demonstrated the potential danger of birds. Anyway, the gunman is revealed to be a notorious outlaw Jake Lonergan who's wanted for, among other things, stealing a bunch of gold from the rich cattleman Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (the aforementioned capitalist). 

The plot isn't all that important (although it took five writers to adapt some shitrag comic): the aliens are equal parts evil, pragmatic and really stupid. They capture the townsfolk to experiment on them for no apparent reason (it looks like torture for torture's sake, but maybe our puny Earthling brains can't comprehend the greater good -- but, really, the torture is there to make sure we know who not to identify with). They harvest gold for energy so that they might return home and bring more of their kind. And when fucking with the humans, they do stuff like leave one of their high powered, alien techno gauntlets on a nearby table so that the hero can escape with it on his wrist, but when it comes to fighting the humans, they choose to mostly use their swordlike appendages against enemy rifles rather than the laser cannons at their disposal. Had the European settlers chosen to use only knives after introducing the Indians to rifles, there might be some parallel here.

Because everyone has lost a loved one to the aliens, the people decide that they have more that unites them than divides (the enemy of my enemy ...). This includes the Chiricahua Apache, who at first believe the white men responsible for the disappearance of Indian women, but are disabused by the Colonel's Apache assistant/adopted son with his tales of the former's great warrior deeds. In return, the Colonel learns respect for the Apaches when he realizes his assistant is more of a real son than his own layabout flesh and blood. The inclusion of the Apache is problematic for Favreau's stated goal of inverting the white settlers as their other, since the Indians are already occupying that minority position. The set-up is, in fact, closer to the Apache making a Faustian deal with the U.S. troops to fight the more longstanding threat from the Mexicans. A more interesting version would've had the Apache siding with the aliens to wipe out the white settlers, the equally imperialist Mexicans and then going on to slaughter the remaining Comanche (who'd played a large part in the Apache's dwindling numbers), resulting in control over the whole Southwest region. Only then could whiteness be fantasized as a minority power. What we get instead are criminals, capitalists, the law and the American Other all coming together to ensure that the symbolic order is restored for a happy ending. That the order is structurally white is forgotten (forgiven) by all, as are Jake's and the Colonel's evil deeds; the town is appropriately named Absolution. Underneath skin, the film suggests, aren't we all really the same, or, as Dyer put it, "no color," that is "white"? 


[Attack the Block] would start like an Abel Ferrara film or a Michael Winner film with this archetypal situation, this deliberately stereotypical situation and then this thing would fall from the sky and everything would change. And you would start the process of humanizing and exploring and dimensionalizing the characters. That was absolutely the inspiration.
-- Writer-Director Joe Cornish

Attack the Block begins with the mugging of a young white woman named Sam by a group of South London teenage thugs in hoodies. In contrast to a "stereotypical situation" from Winner or Ferrara, the process of humanizing the gang was already implicitly underway before the audience learns anything else about the characters: Sam is neither raped nor killed, only loses her purse. That is, thieves are a lot more human than rapists or murderers (e.g., Cary Grant was allowed to play the former in To Catch a Thief, but the studio insisted that Hitchcock absolve Ray Milland of wife killing in Dial M for Murder). Identification won't prove too taxing, since a falling alien disrupts the event before it possibly takes a turn for the worse, unburdening the empathic bond between audience and the criminals cum heroes we'll be asked to feel later on (nevertheless, some still had a problem with the film's anti-heroes). The position of Whiteness is here about class, the structural haves versus the have-nots: Sam is a nurse in training with an economic future; the gang members have to take what they need. She'll move away from the area after her residency; the gang is stuck there. As with Cowboys & Aliens, the fantasy of extraterrestrial invasion erases the structural conflict, the leftover being what unifies the two represented classes, namely their jointly held humanity. Sam eventually joins her former attackers (the plot if you want it), reasoning that she's safer with them than alone against the ("true") aliens.

If Attack the Block is less problematic than Cowboys & Aliens in its function as diversionary entertainment -- as a white humanist fantasy -- it's because there's seemingly less to distract the viewer from the entertainment, such as the recalling of genocide. Cornish doesn't bring along as much ideological baggage (or, at least, he stores it better than Favreau and his screenwriters). Differences in class are never truly differences in the ontological position of Human. As Marx (in Capital) suggested, the proletariat receives a wage that, however insufficient, is never symbolically nugatory. He has some agency in how to spend it. This is a difference in scale, not kind, from the rich capitalist. Chattel slavery, on the other hand, deprives the individual of his humanity, his agency; since no wage is given, his body becomes pure use value for another (the master). Expanding on this contrast, Frank B. Wilderson III (in Red, White & Black) points out, "[i]f workers can buy a loaf of bread, they can also buy a slave." (p. 13) The proletariat might be exploited and alienated, but the slave isn't even human. In having the middle class white nurse join up with a bunch of poor, mostly black kids (there's one white among them), Cornish sets up what Wilderson calls a conflict ("a rubric of problems that can be posed and conceptually solved") rather than an antagonism ("an irreconciliable struggle between entities, or positions, the resolution of which is not dialectical but entails the obliteration of one of the positions" - p. 5). The class difference between the white heroine, Sam, and the black anti-hero, Moses (the gang leader), can be elided, because the history of class struggle has never been a matter of denying one class the ontological position of Human. Therefore, facing an attack from the ontological Inhuman -- i.e., the black, furry ape-wolf hybrids with glowing blue teeth -- a common ground is (re-)discovered by the two protagonists (and the audience). 

A beautifully streamlined, low-budget design.

What's left unsaid -- is structurally unconscious -- is the difference (the antagonism) between Whiteness and Blackness. Is it mere happenstance that most of the gang (the lower class) are black? The fear being entertained in this film, as with Cowboys & Aliens, is that the dominant order aka the status quo aka Whiteness will be destroyed by an extraterrestrial lifeform qua Otherness. The fantasy is that Whiteness' own historically situated Earthbound Other (Indians, blacks) will naturally find more common cause with the extant normative order than with the revolutionary potential of the invading Inhumans. Granted, both films stack the deck, showing the aliens to be nothing more than bloodthirsty monsters, but that simply reinforces the fantasy of what Wilderson calls a Master/Settler narrative. A more revolutionary alien invasion film has yet to be made that would show an intelligent invading species providing a genuine, empathic analogy to those who've historically been structured as ontologically closer to the aliens than humans. To its credit, one might say, Attack the Block shows Moses being arrested after having saved the status quo from destruction, but this ironic outcome doesn't mitigate the fact that he's smiling at a job well done.

Relevant Tags

Jon Favreau (2), Indians (4), Attack The Block (8), Joe Cornish (2), Blackness (5), Whiteness (4), Otherness (4), Frank B. Wilderson Iii (4), Cowboys & Aliens (3), Richard Dyer (2), Spider-man (2), Eddie Murphy (3)