(Disclaimer: I attended Yale during the reign of deconstruction/semiotics/close reading but absorbed pretty much nothing. All that remains of my Ivy League education is a nagging sense that I ought to be able to express myself better in posts like this one.)
Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former U.N. whatever with a wife and two daughters. Both the wife (Mireille Enos) and the elder girl are extremely fair-skinned with fair hair. Gerry’s former boss, a muckety-muck named Thierry Umutoni, is played by the dark-skinned South African actor Fana Mokoena; aside from Thierry, only one other very dark-skinned character receives any significant screen time. I’ll get to her later.
So, the zombies rage and the Lanes flee. Their initial flight is harrowing to watch because Rachel, the elder daughter, is suffering an asthma attack without an inhaler. Nothing heightens an audience’s emotional engagement with a character like watching her struggle to breathe (if you want to see this done in the service of great antiracist storytelling, check out episode one of “The Corner”). The suspense and danger mount until this family becomes the echt family in peril and all our energies are concentrated on willing them to safety. And where do they end up on the second or third leg of this hellish family trip? In a shitty Newark housing project. With echoing graffitied stairwells. And no lights, presumably because the zombies somehow busted the electricity, but the scene is so close to the stereotypical (or not so) housing-project nightmare, and the Lanes are so beautiful and noble in their desperation, that the whole first slice of the movie becomes a fable of the white middle-class family threatened by foreign socioeconomic environment, a fever dream of whiteness at risk.
In the housing project, the Lanes are granted temporary shelter in a Latino family’s apartment. The family feeds them (probably tortillas, but I forgot to check) and they all get some sleep, and then Brad Pitt tries to get the brown family to throw their lot in with him—leave their apartment and run out into the dark like crazy people—which they inexplicably refuse to do. (“Movimiento es vida,” he urges them, as I recalled the advice of survivalist Ragnar Benson: “City survivors cannot allow themselves to become refugees. Refugees are always subject to the whim and caprice of soldiers, either ours or theirs, and of governments.”* This proves true for the female Lanes.) Later, however, when the Lanes are being rescued off the top of the building by Matthew Fox, the son of the doomed family turns up and is saved along with them. I wasn’t sure what this kid Tommy was doing in the movie, except perhaps showing us that the Lanes are very noble indeed, since they essentially adopt him, and that post-apocalyptic society is nicely color-blind. Later still Gerry ceremoniously charges Tommy with looking after “the ladies,” thus adding gender roles to the muddle of regrettable tropes.
So, there’s the milky-white family in peril, aided by brown people (see under: “Black characters are there to help white characters”). But surely there are other people of color in the movie, right? Well, there are two major-ish characters of color who are also scientists: that’s exciting! One is the brilliant and plot-explicating Dr. Fassbach (Elyes Gabel), and one is a researcher (Ruth Negga) at the World Health Organization bunker located at walking distance from Brad Pitt’s plane’s crash site. Both speak in cut-glass colonial English accents, I noticed, and Dr. Fassbach is rapidly dispatched; the other has no name, and her role is mainly to look at closed-circuit television screens and wonder aloud where Gerry could have got to. Thierry is black, and a high muckety-muck, but again his role revolves around Gerry, giving our hero information and trying (vainly) to protect the Lane family. There’s an Israeli soldier, but she’s pale. The movie is absolutely atrocious on Israel, by the way, with the security wall transformed into “salvation gates” (yes, it seems ludicrous, but that’s what my notes say) and happy, grateful Palestinians streaming into the country, only to attract the zombies by singing their simple peasant songs too loudly into a feedback-laden sound system.
And that other character of color? She’s a horrific zombie. The actress, Sarah Amankwah, has rich dark skin, gorgeous African features, and long braids (possibly dreadlocks? I can’t find a picture). She plays a lab-coated zombie isolated behind a glass wall, gnashing her teeth and rolling her eyes, and the scientists standing around comment that Gerry will have to face off with her to test his important plot-point hypothesis. At this point the film cuts repeatedly between Brad Pitt’s pale, fluorescently lit face and the zombie’s maddened and terrifying mask, making clear the opposition between heroic, imperiled whiteness and demonic blackness.
In her book The Isis Papers, Frances Cress Welsing writes:
I have defined racism as the behavioral power system of logic, thought, speech, action, emotional response and perception—whether consciously or unconsciously determined—in persons who classify themselves as “white.” The goal of racism is white domination over the vast majority of the world’s people whom the whites have classified as “non-whites” (black, brown, red and yellow) in order to ensure white genetic survival.**
The emphasis is mine, because what is the burden of a zombie movie but the struggle for genetic survival? According to Dr. Welsing, white people are genetically weaker than people of color, and we know this, and it’s basically the reason we work so hard to oppress the rest of world. I’m not saying she’s right. It doesn’t matter whether she’s right. What matters is whether her ideas can help us understand, for example, the writhing mass of cultural signifiers that is World War Z, and perhaps prompt us to ask ourselves: what would the movie have been like with Sarah Amankwah in the lead?
*Ragnar’s Urban Survival, pp. 120-121.
**Page 119, “The Mother Fucker and the Original Mother Fucker” (1976).
EDIT: I am sorry to say that due to technical difficulties, a comment on this post has been erased. It read: “Whoever wrote this is a short-sighted fool.” — cj