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Dead White Men: An Essay on the Changing Dynamics of Race in US Action Cinema

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 83, Number 2, Spring 2010
pp. 400-428 | 10.1353/anq.0.0128

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Dead White Men:
An Essay on the Changing Dynamics of Race in US Action Cinema

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Undead Hyperwhite Vampire: Underworld Evolution, 2006.*

© 2006 Lakeshore Entertainment Group LLC., All Rights Reserved Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

[End Page 400]

"A blockbuster [is]…the place where collective social desire for transformation and salvage, revolution and restoration, anarchy and obedience is simultaneously fastened and split."

The largest costume retailer in the US, rejoicing at the empty box stores left behind by the bankruptcy of chains like Circuit City, reported that its most popular disguises for the lucrative (and unusual) Saturday Halloween of 2009 were Zombies, Vampires, and Michael Jackson (NPR 10.22.2009). Dead white men all, except not quite. Zombies and vampires are not so much dead as undead, and Michael Jackson was not white, except perhaps in his later years.

The popularity of both the undead white man and the newly dead, whitened, black man points to what anthropological studies of popular cinema have long taken into account: the stories movies tell are in accord with the "attitudes, daydreams, ethics, and modes of life of a people" (Wolfenstein 1953:268). [End Page 401]

It is not only that Americans watch the action, science fiction, or horror movies that will be central to this essay and in which whiteness, deadness, and maleness are all under strident attack, but that they delight equally in becoming the blood-spattered bearers of these fantasies themselves. With capes and fangs, or with bandaged heads and rotted skin, they lurch through bars and downtown city streets. Some even (in the finest bit of irony available today) play at being the zombie Michael Jackson—these grave risen moonwalkers, with tight black pants and chalk-whitened faces, dance en masse to the dated strands of his "Thriller,"each fluttering a single spangled glove.

The last forty years has seen a slow rising tide in the popularity of the living dead, on screen and off. This same period has also seen the nascence of a second set of characters who, though more powerful today than the dead white men they very often vanquish, have received much less popular commendation. These are the black (super) heroes, first born into popular culture in the 1970s in film and in comics (cf. Brown 2000), who have slowly developed into the killers designate of evil white men, both dead and undead.

This trend, which was at first only tentatively present in the careful unfolding of story and character, has becoming an increasingly predominant element in the story-lines of US blockbusters. There are hints of it in the buddy films of the late 1980s when Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), for example, shoots with aggressive glee a single white south African who has stolen and threatened his daughter (Lethal Weapon 2 [dir. Richard Donner 1989]). It is there even slightly earlier in Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), one of the first black characters in a mainstream film to kill a white man specifically as a means of establishing himself as both good and trustworthy—though he, like Glover, dispatches only one: a "white skinned" storm trooper (Return of the Jedi [dir. Richard Marquand 1983]).

What began, however, as a tentative pattern within the narrative structure of action films and in comics has since exploded into a new configuration of race relations evident in, if not governing, these films. Blade (Wesley Snipes, in a film of the same name [dir. Stephen Norrington 1998]) hunts white people, as does Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) in the horror/scifi/action crossover film I am Legend (dir. Francis Lawrence 2007), so too does Darious Stone (Ice Cube) in the poorly reviewed 2005 blockbuster XXX2 - The State of the Union (dir. Lee Tamahori). And though Blade may hunt vampires; Neville—zombies; and Stone—politicians, each of these (lifeless, white) villains [End Page 402] is marked by a very similar set of characteristics. Evil is white. It is usually male; it "reproduces" itself orally (if at all)—that is, via the mouth rather than the genitals; it finds pleasure in greed and overconsumption; and its passage through culture, its very...