Friday, May 10, 2013

Revolution and Race

When Revolution began, I can’t say we had a particularly high hopes in terms of racial inclusion. We hoped to be surprised, but we’ve watched and read a few dystopians now and they don’t have a great record when it comes to the representation of POC. Almost inevitably, these stories revolve around the great and glorious straight, cisgender, able bodied White man and how he is going to save us all. POC are usually in very secondary roles and they die in vastly disproportionate numbers.

Revolution alas, didn’t change things, even with Charlie being the main character, we quickly lined up behind Miles Matheson, the great white hope to save us all. And the POC?

Well, firstly we had that classic dystopian problem - death. So much death. Of course, it’s a war, it’s a post-apocalyptic world, people are going to die. People are going to die in large numbers and from all demographics, people are going to have to be sacrificed and they certainly are on Revolution - in hefty numbers. But Black people, already making up a relatively small number of the cast, don’t live long or develop well before they die. The rebels had Nicholas, a preacher and a war leader, a complicated character I hoped would be developed well until... death. Then there was Alec, Miles’s former protegé (he seems to have a couple of random Black protegés) who was sold to Texas for punishment for a botched assassination. He serves Monroe faithfully despite how he was treated - he’s willing to sacrifice his life to plant a nuclear bomb in Atlanta - and, of course, is shot before he can.

Then there’s the bit parts who barely warrant a name but are there fore emotional impact - Rosie dying to emphasise the losses the rebels took, and Beth, who has to be sacrificed so we can see what the nanites do to stop her cancer.

That’s a lot of death for a not very large number of characters but, again, it’s not just about the number of deaths, it’s also about the quality of death. None of these characters were developed sufficiently for their deaths to be particularly traumatic or important. Those whose deaths were presented as even slightly emotional - Beth, Nicholas, were largely done as ways to make a point to others rather in their own right. Contrast that to massive grieving around Danny or even Maggie - their loss was felt, it was important, it had impact, they were people whose deaths mattered.

The POC who live - and who die for that matter - are so often in a secondary role and in the shadow of a White character, serving a White character, or controlled by a White character. Nicholas never develops to be the leader he could have been. Grace is a prisoner in fear of her life and has been since the very beginning of the show - a tool in Randall’s hands. James Hudson has every reason to be furious with Miles who failed him during his attempt to kill Monroe. Despite having risked Hudson’s life, Miles still tracks him down and brings the militia down on his life - costing him his home and his wife. That’s twice Miles ruins his life - and Hudson still follows Miles.

Priscilla is Aaron’s wife who we have seen  in flashbacks of Aaron’s life and  more he recently when he  ran into her in the Plains Nation. We know nothing about this woman because she isn’t a character, she isn’t a person in her own right. She’s a name - she’s a tool for Aaron’s development. She is part of the man he was, weak and self-doubting and returns again to show his growth into a greater representation of “acceptable” masculinity.

Even the two most prominent POC on the show - Neville and Nora - are cast in a shadowed, secondary fashion.

I must admit that when I saw Giancarlo Esposito appear on Revolution, I was extremely excited.  Giancarlo Esposito is an amazing actor and I knew that if the writers gave him a powerful role, he could more than pull it off.  As Major Tom Neville, Esposito has taken on the role of a very interesting antagonist.  At first blanch, this might seem problematic because once again we have a man of colour as the bad guy but it is not as simple as that. Though Giancarlo Esposito is clearly a Blatino, Major Tom Neville is not.  Had his hypermasuline role been given to him as a man of Latino heritage, it could be deemed problematic because of the image of Latino men being filled machismo.  Tom Neville however is meant to be read strictly as Black.  Hypermasculinity in Black men is actually a rarity in television despite their continual castings as thugs, drug dealers and pimps. Neville, in terms of hyper masculinity, is the equal of Bass and Miles.  While hyper masculinity in and of itself is always problematic in terms of gender, in this case, it forms a sort equality between Neville, Monroe and Miles.

Neville as an antagonist is however still problematic.  Despite the fact that we are meant to see him as existing with no moral boundaries, he is still second to Bass and most recently second to Miles.  No matter where Neville is placed, all he can do is follow orders or capitulate to a stronger man for survival, thus placing limits on the power he gains from his behaviour relative to the White men he is juxtaposed to. As an antagonist, he is most certainly destined for defeat but unlike others in his role, it will always be because of how he was forced to respond to the actions of others. Neville doesn’t act independently, he always responds to stronger forces and that is not a true antagonist.  This is why, not matter how much screen time Neville gets, he will never be more than a side character because at the end of the day, his actions have no real bearing on where the story is headed.

The ultimate in side characters however, is Nora. When we were first introduced to her, Miles made a huge deal about how necessary her skills were to freeing Danny. Though she resisted, Nora eventually agreed to go along and as the weeks passed she has become increasingly less relevant. Nora does not act in her own self interest, even in cases where it involves her family - instead of leaving with her sister to find her father, Nora put Charlie above her own flesh and blood. The writers could have had her leave and rejoin the group after spending time with her sister but that would have given her too much autonomy.  

From the beginning we learned that Nora and Miles clearly had a past. It was more than hinted at, yet the moment Rachel showed up, Nora was shunted to the sideline as though everything she and Miles had been through was absolutely meaningless. Nora literally risked her life and her freedom for Miles and yet all of that was meaningless when Rachel showed up.  To make matters worse, he never confides in her, or listens to what she has to say.  Charlie who has had much less experience than Nora commands far more of Miles attention than Nora could ever hope to. Now that Rachel is gone, Nora and Miles have sex and it feels so much like she is a consolation prize because he couldn’t get Rachel. Miles never ever speaks up in Nora’s defense, let alone acts to help her the way he has done for Charlie and while Charlie may be his niece, he has known her a New York minute in comparison to his long term interactions with Nora. When Nora has been in true peril, either she has saved herself, or Aaron has saved her.  She is clearly not worthy of being saved by a major male character.  At this point, Nora is little more than a convenient weapon who is told never to question Miles’ actions and a fluffer for when Rachel is not around.  Nora may have started off as an interesting character but now she is little more than a cardboard cutout.

I wish I could say we were surprised by how these characters developed in Revolution, but this is the same pattern we’ve seen in dystopians over and over. The straight White saviour narrative that is almost a requirement in these shows pushes marginalised characters to the back; as secondary forces, side characters or casualties. Again and again it seems the Grim Darkness of the future is extra Grim for POC.