White and "Black" versus Yellow: Metaphor and Blade Runner's Racial Politics
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White and "Black" versus Yellow:
Metaphor and Blade Runner's Racial Politics

Look at my face,—look at my hands,—look at my body . . . why am I not a man, as much as anybody?

George Harris, Uncle Tom's Cabin

I want more life, fucker.

Roy Batty, Blade Runner

In Sir Ridley Scott's immensely popular science fiction film, Blade Runner (1982, The Director's Cut version released in 1992, and The Final Cut in 2007), Los Angeles in the year 2019 is an Asian city that has gone to hell.1 The opening aerial shot tracks across a dark industrial wasteland, punctuated by large smokestacks that shoot roiling bursts of orange flame high into the air. A giant Times Square-like video screen fills the side of one skyscraper. The screen runs a Coca Cola advertisement on a loop, featuring a close up of the powder-white face of a Japanese geisha popping a little red pill. A loud and menacing kabuki soundtrack accentuates the image. Hot neon business signs written in a jumble of kanji (Japanese characters based on Chinese ideograms) and kana (Japanese syllabary) are everywhere. Asian people crowd the sidewalks. Most are dressed in stereotypical rice-picker straw hats and black pajama suits, caught by the camera in the midst of running errands. Some run small street stands, selling things like noodles. In the street, they ride their bicycles in droves, just as in Beijing. The rain-drenched post-apocalyptic scene conveys "the feeling that everything is contaminated and everyone will soon die from radiation poisoning," as Danny Peary writes in a 1982 review. "Has WWIII occurred?" [End Page 113] he wonders, "Judging by all the Orientals in the streets, could China have defeated America?" (229). The "Oriental" dystopia probably made sense to the viewer in 1982, the film's debut year, as well as in 1992, the year of the highly successful theatrical re-release in its "Director's Cut" version. In fact, many critics read the characterization of the city as a reflection of the period's economic history: the increasing globalization of the national economy with respect to the Pacific Rim, especially LA, and the widespread "Yellow Peril" fear of a Japanese corporate invasion.

The few whites seen in this emphatically Asian Los Angeles are clearly the minority, including the retired cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), one of the two heroes of the piece. Not only do Asians vastly outnumber whites; the city appears to have been evacuated of black people. "There aren't any in the picture, even in the crowd scenes," another reviewer observes (Dempsey 36). Taking the same inventory, Kaja Silverman in her essay on the film, "Back to the Future," concurs that Blade Runner "contains no black characters" (115). The film's lack of blackness departs from the standard racial representation of an American city, which is based on a white and black binary. At least since the 1968 Civil Rights Kerner Commission report, to pick just one example, "inner-city" and "ghetto" have often served as metaphors for the tension between a white majority and a black minority. One would expect to see at least a few black people on the screen, especially since the British Film Institute volume on the film describes the city as "an extended inner-city ghetto environment" (Bukatman 74). It is a curious omission, given the actual black presence in LA, and given the long history of writing about such a presence in US cities. In Blade Runner's LA, however, the racial composition of a white minority and Asian majority replaces that of a white majority and black minority. Are we to believe that by 2019, all the black people of Los Angeles have left, en masse, for a better life elsewhere in the galaxy? The film never explains. Neither do the critics.

But even though the film contains no black bodies, Blade Runner absolutely depends upon the category of blackness and its role in the history of American slavery and civil rights. By the year 2019 life on earth has deteriorated dramatically and most of those with mobility have "emigrated" to a better life on the "off-world...