It’s pretty blatant stuff. Matt Damon plays the only white person left in Los Angeles in 2154, beloved by the Latinos who surround him. He drops some Spanish on them, jests with their children, and lives among them just as if he were actually brown! Just like a person of color, too, he suffers from discrimination and lack of worker protections on the job, and from surveillance, suspicion and a constant presumption of guilt in the criminal-justice system. If there’s one difference between him and the rest of the population, it’s that he’s slightly less grimy, and also his teeth are good. Max was raised in an orphanage run by a nun speaking what sounded to my untutored ear like Castilian Spanish, which led me to spend half the flashbacks thinking he was from Europe; now, unlike everyone else in L.A., he speaks unaccented dominant-culture English.
These would be the basic absurdities of any big Hollywood movie trying to portray a non-white environment. But the bitter pill of white supremacy that this movie is shopping around—the only person who can breach Elysium’s sanctity and free up its resources for millions of black and brown Earthlings is a white man—becomes even harder to swallow when the story clothes Max in the oppression suffered by people of color. It’s as if Hollywood can’t even allow POC to represent themselves. Wait, what do I mean, “as if”? The Trojan-horse argument recently made by “Orange is the New Black” creator Jenji Kohan, that you need a white hero to get stories about “diverse” subjects produced, holds no water for me anymore. When all your stories have white heroes (or anti-heroes), you reinforce the perception that only white people are really people; everyone else is merely set dressing.
I’m a big “District 9” fan. (One of the ways “Elysium” fell short for me was the confining and sexist role given to Frey, played by Alice Braga. Another was that it’s very hard for me to root against Sharlto Copley, even when he’s leering at Alice Braga, because I think he’s totally awesome.) Someone recently suggested to me that the aliens in that movie are actually human or close to it: they’re so intelligent and so technologically advanced that they have the ability to turn themselves into “prawns” for the purpose of interstellar travel, probably with the mysterious black sludge, and will resume human form when they get back home. I found this theory really disconcerting (although the person who propounded it was simultaneously making me a delicious egg-in-a-basket). To me, “District 9” is about coming to understand, on the deepest level, that a race of beings you considered inferior and disposable based on their appearance are actually just as valuable and complex as you are. To say that the aliens are humans in disguise is, for me, like saying that black people are just as worthy as white people because they’re essentially white on the inside.
Like “District 9,” “Elysium” transforms its hero into something extra-human. In a grotesquely transfixing scene, Max gets an exoskeleton drilled into his skin and fused with his brain and nervous system. But where Wikus’s transformation is what drives the first movie’s racial metaphor home, Max’s is used by “Elysium” to divert attention from the story’s race problems. At least that’s how it worked for me. The instant that carapace was stapled onto Max, I stopped thinking about his whiteness and thought instead about the poignancy of his new position and how doomed he was. He became an archetype: the damaged, suffering superhero; the Christ. What the movie did here, I think, is throw out a trope so pleasing and powerful that it slid home under my analytical defenses.
Just before the exoskeleton bit, I had in fact been wondering why I am so obsessed with digging out racist content in movies. Are my friends getting bored? Why can’t I let it go? (I used to be the same way about sexism, but the direction of my anger has changed somewhat.) I think maybe it’s because I have to keep proving racism to myself. I have to keep racking up the evidence, because I’m afraid I’ll stop believing it. I’m white, so I could easily go through my daily life without seeing racism in action all around me. I don’t want to go back to sleep.