A lifetime of being othered due to skin colour, race, religion, takes a toll on the psyche; instilling shame, inferiority, and self-loathing. This can lead people of colour, including film-makers, writers, and other artists to seek purer, more beautiful alternative worlds. However as Kavita Bhanot and Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi discuss ‘Everyone wants to imagine themselves as kings and queens, but kingdoms always exist on the backs of others.’
Last weekend white saviour film Green Book, critiqued as a film about racism made by white people, for white people won an Oscar for best picture. It is not difficult to see why this feel-good, non-threatening film would be rewarded in this way. Meanwhile, two recent films, Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, despite being huge box office successes, and breakthroughs for their representations of people of colour, without a white saviour in sight (apart from the bit part of a CIA agent in Black Panther), were mostly snubbed at the Oscars. It can be tempting to defend these films in contrast to the obviously problematic Green Book, but we must also question these two films.
It is not hard to see why we want to celebrate these films. In the opening scene of Crazy Rich Asians, we see the super wealthy Young family from Singapore emerge from heavy British rain into a hotel, where they are told by the white, racist manager that there are no available rooms for them. In response, the Young matriarch makes a phone call, and reveals herself as the hotel’s new owner-to-be. Such reversals of the normalised western gaze recur throughout the film, such as when a Singaporean father tells his children to eat all their food, since “there’s lots of starving people in America,” or when a comment is made about Americans putting older people into homes. Similarly, in Black Panther there is a scene where Erik Killmonger ‘takes back’ artefacts stolen from Wakanda from a British museum, and another where American CIA Agent Ross is silenced by M’Baku, ruler of the Jabari Tribe, along with the rest of his jeering soldiers. “You cannot talk” he is told.
As viewers of colour, we experience a rush, almost catharsis at these depictions, which can feel like public articulations of what we’ve been thinking and saying privately for years. The films, written by non-white writers, with virtually no significant white cast members, can feel like a corrective balm. It has almost been a matter of principle for people of colour, in particular black and east Asian audiences, to view, support and celebrate the films. However, we need to be careful not to end up cheering-on books, films, and other representations simply because they are by, and/or feature people of colour (often still with white producers, promoters, distributors etc.) while in fact they can undermine the very movements that they seem to support.
Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, different in many ways, particularly because of the context of slavery and ongoing anti-blackness in which Black Panther has been made and received, share similarities. Both follow the plight of a second-generation immigrant of modest means who wishes to claim a place in a world of opulence and wealth, a place that is imagined simultaneously as ‘foreign’ and as an ‘original homeland’. Rachel, the protagonist of Crazy Rich Asians, visits her boyfriend’s home in Singapore, to be confronted with a world of nearly unimaginable wealth, comfort and beauty. The film’s opening quote, ‘Let China sleep, for when she awakens she will shake the world’ does not represent a Singapore remotely representative of the country. Instead, it shows a world of the mega-wealthy Chinese, who seem to signify a kind of ‘authenticity’ and untaintedness; they refer to Rachel as a ‘banana’ – yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Similarly, Eric Killmonger in Black Panther goes to Wakanda to claim his rightful place. Wakanda signifies both original ‘Africa’ and a kind of futuristic utopia. It is populated by Africans who are rich, talented, beautiful, and comfortable in their own skin, as opposed to the African-American Eric, who is represented as being damaged, fearful, and full of rage.
This hierarchy and perspective essentially places the working-class diasporics in both films as the underdogs, while the elite inhabitants of the non-western nations are in a position of power and desirability. It is this interaction, between second-generation, diasporic, working-class origin immigrants, and native elites, that this piece is concerned with.
The dichotomy, between diasporic and ‘native’ was articulated in the 1980s by writers and academics such as Homi Bhabha and Salman Rushdie, who explored the inventive potential of hybridity. They elevated the mixed-upness of diasporic cultures, saying that far from being a kind of dilution or lack of authenticity, being an immigrant could also mean belonging in-between or everywhere, and therefore occupying a kind of potentially new positionality and a birds-eye view. There were many problems with this argument, which have been discussed in academic, political and popular discourse about the diaspora for decades. For one thing, it neglects diasporic class and caste differences, conflating the experiences of cosmopolitan global elites such as Rushdie and Bhabha, with economic, working-class migrants and their descendants, as if migration is a social leveler.
Although it is true that migration can offer opportunities for less privileged migrants due to the rigid social structures in their homeland, privilege, cultural capital, entitlement, as well as how humiliations such as racism are experienced, are also carried over to the new homeland. The two films do the inverse, elevating the supposedly ‘authentic’, the original, the native. But they run into the same problem of not taking class and other power structures into account. In truth, there may be far more commonality between the cosmopolitan elites who live abroad and travel ‘back home’ occasionally and the cosmopolitan elites who live in their countries of origin and travel abroad occasionally. As we see in Wakanda’s royal family in Black Panther, and the incredibly wealthy, old moneyed Young family in Crazy Rich Asians, such elites are inevitably international, easily able to travel, and find cosmopolitan spaces where they feel comfortable everywhere. Drawing on their status, their response to racism in the west is often indignation – an incredulous sense of “don’t you know who I am?”. This is what we see in the Young mother’s reaction to the racist hotel manager. She is indignant because being extraordinarily rich and powerful, her family should not have to encounter such mundane racism. Perhaps we saw a version of this sentiment in Cambridge University professor Priyamvada Gopal’s encounter with a porter at Cambridge’s King’s College last year; mixed into Gopal’s justified frustration in the face of racial profiling by porters was outrage that the porter did not, despite her repeated requests, refer to her as Doctor Gopal. The Young mother, or Professor Gopal, in using their status to demand better treatment, can end up complicit with the toxic structural linkage of power and respect.
Rachel and Eric’s aspiration to join the elite class, is understandable. Colonialism, as continuing decolonial struggles highlight, is far from over. The continuing violence, economic exploitation and oppression by western countries across the globe are testament to this, as is the way whiteness, entrenched at the heart of the western nations we live in, produces overt and normalised everyday racism. A lifetime of being othered due to skin colour, race, religion, takes a toll on the psyche; instilling shame, inferiority, and self-loathing. This can lead people of colour, including film-makers, writers, and other artists to seek purer, more beautiful alternative worlds. Drawing on what can be a very real connection with a place of origin, we can end up constructing a culture, language, religion, or place where such oppressions and degradations do not exist. Such utopias, which Afrofuturism might be seen as an example, play an important role. According to South Africa based Mohale Mashigo:
“Afrofuturism is an escape for those who find themselves in the minority and divorced or violently removed from their African roots, so they imagine a ‘black future’ where they aren’t a minority and are able to marry their culture with technology. That is a very important story and it means a lot to many people.”
However, as Mashigo argues in her essay, “Afrofuturism is not for Africans living in Africa,” the creation or imposition of utopias and alternative worlds through existing places, people, religions, traditions, can be alien for those who live in those places. These places, people, religions, traditions are contrasted with whiteness and serve a functional role of restoring pride and confidence. This can end up perpetuating an internalised white gaze, as the specificity and complexity of those places, the layers within, such as class, caste, colourism, are erased or disregarded. The abstraction of real, globally marginalised places, turning them into fantasies or backdrops, can be seen as a continuation of the way these places have been represented in white literature and film, as a similar assertion of power or domination.
In Black Panther, the working-class origin, American-born and raised Killmonger is presented as both underdog and antagonist, pitched against his cousin and Wakanda family. He is a product of the West, of the ways in which a black man in the US is historically and continuously oppressed; (“Their leaders have been assassinated, communities flooded with drugs and weapons, they are overly policed and incarcerated”). Killmonger is shown as almost distorted by his rage because of the context that he has lived in. He is a villainised misrepresentation of the politics of Black resistance, for example that of the more well-known, non-comic based Black Panther party. Anger can be justified, it can also be beautiful and productive; force that can be directed towards radical and necessary change. Killmonger’s anger, however, is shown to be a lamentable product of trauma, one that can be empathised with and mourned, but which is ultimately undesirable. The ideology of Black Panther is one which dismisses the productive anger and resistance of movements such as Black Lives Matter, replacing it with a far less threatening framework—one of community work, contribution, fitting into the existing world order, through structures such as the US-dominated UN. In other words, the film encourages inclusivity and diversity rather than decolonisation – which involves pulling down existing white structures rather than fitting into them. Meanwhile, the film’s success rides on the backs of recently revived struggles and demands for decolonisation.
One of the ways in which working-class diasporics can aspire to ally with power is by establishing their own superior status, such as through a pride in their class or family history or ancestry. We see this in Killmonger, who is distinguished from his fellow working-class diasporics through his royal blood. This sentiment draws on a common but deeply problematic trope that has been at the heart of so many iconic narratives; from the stories of Moses, Krishna, the Pandavas and Ram in exile, to Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, The Little Princess, or The Ugly Duckling. These are all founded on the protagonists’ discovery or knowledge that, despite their difficult circumstances, they are actually aristocratic, noble, or ‘special’. Even the apparently middle-class Solomon Northup, who ‘mistakenly’ ends up enslaved in 12 Years a Slave, can be seen as an example of this. These can also be versions of the riches to rags and then ultimately back to riches story.
The implication is that that the protagonist, whom the reader/viewer might identify with or look up to, doesn’t deserve the hardship, the treatment that everyone else is enduring. They deserve better. Of course, the underlying message of intrinsic worthiness is valuable – we are all worthy of love, care, and good fortune. However, to tie this worth into beauty, wealth, aristocracy, or noble lineage assumes the inherent superiority of certain kinds of people. It does not elevate all, but instead insists on the uniqueness and worthiness of one or a few.
For working-class diasporics, the pride in ancestry can also take the form of a more general pride for the royalty and elites of their race or religion or nationality – this is perhaps one way in which black audiences might connect with Black Panther. Similarly, the Mughal period becomes seen as a golden period for some, or the Sikh kingdom, or pre-colonial Hindu India. In reality, these times were exploitative, feudal, casteist, and oppressive. And yet, decolonising conversations in recent years have had an interest in excavating and celebrating these pre-western colonial histories. We associate ourselves with the nobility, not with the labouring masses that fuel and prop up the extravagance required by the nobility. Discovering that you have noble, wealthy, prestigious roots, claiming your ancestors to be princes and queens does not suggest that at the heart of your ‘woke’ decolonial politics is a commitment to equality – more that your own supremacy is being suppressed in another supremacist context in which you don’t fully benefit, in which your superiority is not recognised. Everyone wants to imagine themselves as kings and queens, but kingdoms always exist on the backs of others.
Whilst Killmonger is shown to not have benefitted from the so-called American Dream (a distant dream for most black Americans), Rachel, the protagonist in Crazy Rich Asians, is a poster girl for it. Her father worked in a factory in China, and her mother, pregnant, ran away from a bad marriage and came to the US with nothing. Her mother waited on tables, and was able to educate her daughter so that Rachel ends up, where the film starts, as an economics professor at NYU. It is important to recognise that it is the class mobility that migration to the west has given Rachel that allows her to meet Nick Young, who teaches at the same university, on an equal footing. It would otherwise have been unlikely that someone of Rachel’s class background in China, would cross paths with an heir of the Young family, let alone form a relationship with him.
Migration to the west can allow for social mobility that class and caste structures in migrants’ countries of origin may not allow. Due to historical and ongoing colonialism, there is a certain power that comes with association with the west; with western manners, dress, language, accent and of course money. Meanwhile, as working-class origin second and third generations are developing a sense of the difficulty, even impossibility of uncontested belonging and acceptance in the west, there can be a desire to connect with, be accepted by the elites of their homelands, drawing on the power and opportunity that migration offers. Rachel’s aspiration is to be accepted into the rich extravagant moneyed world that she finds herself in through her relationship; she will do whatever it takes, including having a makeover. By the end of the film we are shown some semblance of this acceptance, when she is given her fiancé’s ring, and we see her enjoying an extravagant rooftop swimming pool engagement party
While there are possibilities for acceptance of working-class diasporics by native elites, this is conditional. They remain vulnerable. In both films, the working-class origin diasporic protagonists are disposable or in need of change. We see, in Crazy Rich Asians, a sense of insecurity in Rachel, out of her depths in the flamboyant world she has entered. While there may seem to be a sense of superiority in working-class origin diasporics, perhaps attached to their citizenship in the western country they have been born or brought up in, this is superficial, and easy to poke holes in, especially when they are faced with elites from native countries. They can’t match the confidence, worldliness, cultural capital, entitlement, articulation of the elites, as they move in and out of different spaces. Even when they might have made money, attained an education and/or ‘success,’ living in a white supremacist society has worn away the self-confidence and self-belief or working-class diasporics.
What the protagonists of these films want is a happy ending, through joining the global elite. And that may be fine in the case of these films, escapist as they are. Perhaps it is unfair to hold them to a higher standard than one would their white counterparts. However, the problem is that these films are being celebrated as radical, a kind of resistance or solution to a film industry saturated in whiteness. In fact, they continue to perpetuate the same world-view that decolonial struggles are resisting – and we haven’t even touched upon the heteronormativity and patriarchy of the films. The very real danger of such films is that by making the industry appear more ‘diverse’, more committed to equality —less ethically corrupt and conservative, they help to maintain the status quo. As films such as Get Out and Moonlight show however, it is not impossible to make popular films that subvert and challenge the industry and its dominant ideologies, rather than perpetuating the status quo.
Kavita Bhanot and Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi