BLADE RUNNER 2049: White Appropriation of Black Oppression

I saw this film while couched between two questionably smelly white dudes on their “bro night out.” It was the film’s opening night at New York’s Loews AMC Theatre, and the place was packed — the air seemed charged as earnest speculations and hearty laughs filled the huge hall. I was certainly impressed just by the sheer size of the audience, but it wasn’t until days later I realized that every person I could see there was white.

I had gone down to Brooklyn to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates speak only nights earlier. There, it was the diversity, not the size of the crowd that I noticed first. Every culture, race, and language seemed to be represented there as I edged my way through the crowd. But back at the AMC, while trying to find space for my large-popcorn-for-one, I took no notice to the uniformity of my neighboring five hundred moviegoers. This, however, is not uncommon. Diversity is a delightful spectacle to the white liberal. I can feel free of a guilty white heritage, and camouflage myself in the “other,” hiding in the size of an audience, and blending in with my eager laughter and desperate applause. Ironically, this environment of racial awareness, where liberal white people flock to to be alleviated of their guilty heritage, is the only real environment that white people even think about their heritage in the first place. After all, I most certainly was not thinking about race in that AMC. My only concern was people’s judgements on my choice of beverage size. And that is because there was no race in that theatre; in fact, there were no white people there at all. There were no white people there, because there were no black people there. And white people don’t have to be white, not until there’s an “other.”

To be clear, this uniformity at AMC was not created through some kind of Nazi-esque movement like Charlottesville; those ‘very fine people’ knew quite well that their fellow marchers were white. This gathering at the AMC theatre was a different kind of danger. Should any of those New Yorkers have been asked if they were racist, they would have most likely said “no.” Yet having a space that is void of cultural considerations due to its sameness is racism, and being consciously or unconsciously complicit in that ignorance is to be racist. If that last sentence upset you, and you are white, I will put it in a more cushioned way that black advocates have created; “you can always be a better ally.” In this line of thinking, all white people are racist because they have the option to forget about race, and therefore can become complicit in their innate privilege. Having privilege doesn’t inherently speak poorly of your character as an individual; it’s what you do with that privilege. And that night at the AMC theatre, I had unconsciously decided to forget about it and watch a movie. And that’s where this all gets interesting.

The movie in question was Blade Runner 2049, directed by French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve, and starring American actors Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. The three hour sci-fi epic takes place in a universe where humans have harnessed the power to bioengineer and practically grow other human-like creatures. These creations are called “Replicants,” who are used primarily for labor and are considered to be the “slaves” of the dystopian landscape of future Los Angeles. Some Replicants go rogue and are hunted down by a special kind of detective, called a Blade Runner. Immediately, there is the obvious issue that humans and replicants look exactly the same, which the first 1982 film deals with, as Harrison Ford’s character wrestles with his identity. In Blade Runner 2049, we follow Ryan Gosling’s character, a thought-to-be Replicant, as he grapples with his identity, and gradually becomes part of “The Resistance.” The film’s plot largely capitalizes on the sentiments of the underdog, rebellion, and justice, all of which stem from the surrounding world of oppression. The cast includes Wood Harris, who performs as the owner of a rundown orphanage in the middle of the garbage heap that once was San Diego; Ana de Armas, performing the role of Ryan Gosling’s software girlfriend; and Dave Bautista, who is killed within the first five minutes of the film. Other than that, replicants and humans alike, are played by almost exclusively white people.

Of course, there are certainly other movies that have much much whiter casts (Moonlight. Sorry, I meant La La Land), but Blade Runner stands out because without a diverse cast, the movie is just selective white appropriation of systemic racial oppression. With Blade Runner, white audiences are never required to leave their comfort zones of white fragility to enjoy a compelling story about bigotry and persecution. Ryan Gosling is the new Chiwetel Ejiofor as he tries to escape the unjust fate he was given at birth.

Am I overreacting? No, I don’t think so. This is an American film franchise, created by Scott Ridley, who, in the first film, refers to Replicants as “slaves” in the opening text. Humans are even caught throwing around words in the film like “skin-job” as a sort of sci-fi racial slur. America, a relatively young country, is built upon two types of oppression: Columbus’ version of Manifest Destiny, and slavery. So an American film that is about oppression is going to be hard pressed to deny any racial or political connotations. This all said, Blade Runner does not shy away from it’s story’s close ties to those American historical forms of prejudice. And I find nothing wrong with art that explores those narratives through extended metaphor, but something feels off when the majority of the characters are white. Especially when those characters stand upon the shoulders of those affected by slavery and the consequential centuries of systematic racism.

Cast and crew of Avatar 2

And while on the subject of whitewashing the narrative of racial subjugation, why not bring up James Cameron’s Avatar. This movie was infamously compared to the plot of Pocahontas, but the cast itself was about as diverse that a 2009 mainstream Hollywood movie could get, featuring Zoe Saldana and Michelle Rodriguez… and then everyone else. But look at a photo of the crew assembled thus far for the sequel set to come out in 2020. That’s a lot of pale hands for such a racially charged storyline to be in. After all, the way a story is handled and told does not begin or end with the people seen on screen. Blade Runner had 16 producers, 13 of whom were white, 11 of whom were male. If a film’s funding is almost 70% white men, and has a primary cast that is comprised of mostly white actors, then one can agree Hollywood’s narratives continue to be dominated by a white point of view. Blade Runner goes one step farther, as it attempts to address America’s racial persecution through extended metaphor of Replicants and Humans still through Hollywood’s caucasian lens.

White audiences watching a white character being subjugated to sci-fi racism can invest safely. We’re obviously now in the land of make believe if anyone is randomly pulling over Ryan Reynolds. Moviegoers can pick and choose what parts of the African-American experience they want. They cheer the underdog, they hiss at the police force, but once the movie’s over, they will go home, and post #blacklivesmatter from a distance. If you want the movie to truly be about Replicants vs. Humans representing a futuristic Cowboys vs. Indians, put actors of color on both sides to represent what 2049 will look like. If the filmmakers believe that 2049 Los Angeles will be somehow practically ethnically cleansed, that’s another movie. As the film stands now, it succeeds at targeting a white audience who can comfortably dip their toe in what it feels like to be systematically persecuted.

I’m sure if there were more people of color in the film, White America might not be able to invest with such ease. We’ve seen this countless times: The Help, The Butler, 12 Years A Slave, Selma, Moonlight, even Girl’s Trip. These movies are seen by white people as racially educational or guilt inducing. Blade Runner 2049 was a sequel running on a huge pre-existing legacy, and wanted to play it as financially safe as possible. So they catered it to their 1982 audience; white people. It’s guilt free, heart-racing, artistic… it even occasionally makes you feel gleefully socially conscious when you notice parallels of modern day racism in the movie. But that glee is a very safe pat on the back. The Replicants are literally called slaves… it’s not very hard to miss. We should instead pay attention to how the story is being told and by whom it’s being told. And right now, which is a long way before 2049, it’s important that audiences everywhere, but primarily white audiences, recognize the necessity of diversity in cast and crew, especially when it comes to this narrative of oppression.