When White Lives Matter Most

No Escape expresses white America’s deep fear of people of color protesting injustice


Late in No Escape, the new thriller from director John Erick Dowdle, the white American protagonist, Jack Dwyer (played by Owen Wilson), is on a rooftop chatting with a white man named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), while they hide from the angry mob of local Southeast Asian men intent on killing them. Hammond, a carefree rogue who loves to drink and talk loudly of his love for local “girls,” explains to Jack that “I’m the one who put your family in harms way.” He means that white men like him — representing countries looking to exploit foreign lands — created the oppression, poverty, and hopelessness that has led to the kind of violence they’re currently embroiled in.

It’s meant to be a moment of self-awareness for the film, a chance for the director to deflect criticism that his story — which follows an American family caught in an Asian country amidst a military coup — is in anyway insensitive. By openly placing blame on white men, Dowdle is perhaps hoping to undercut the fact that the film has spent the previous hour or so vilifying the people of Southeast Asia.

Yet, just a few minutes later, when the mob once again descends, it’s Hammond who gives his life to save the Dwyers — dying a hero at the hands of another nameless, vicious person of color. In fact, though Hammond and Jack might be at fault for starting this mess, there are ultimately no actual white villains in No Escape. By the end, the white characters are all redeemed, regardless of who they have hurt previously. Meanwhile, dozens of extremely violent brown men on screen receive no such sympathy, let alone a specific backstory.

While we reflect on the year that’s passed since Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson because a white man thought he was a “demon,” as transphobia continues to kill black and brown trans women at an epidemic rate, and as Donald Trump stokes false fears that swarms of Mexican “rapists” are crossing the border into the U.S., here is yet another Hollywood film which excuses white supremacy and blatantly casts people of color in the role of monsters. Even as it inches towards an acknowledgement of privilege, it does so, quite literally, through the further dehumanization of Southeast Asian people.

For instance, in one scene Jack Dwyer is scrambling to find somewhere to hide his family from the wild mob of men who were shown executing civilians in the street just moments before. They’re all in an office building now, which was recently attacked by said group, with the bodies of dead people of color scattered amongst the rubble like zombies.

As the villains get nearer, Jack directs his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and their two daughters, to move under an office table. He then proceeds to pick up one of the bodies to use it as camouflage for their location.

In one particularly harrowing shot, he peers out from behind this lifeless Southeast Asian man, now serving as his physical shield, just as the attackers enter the room. A few minutes later, when the smoke clears, Jack actually removes clothes from the bodies of other anonymous dead “Asians” to cover his family.

One reading of Dowdle’s work here, a director whose previous credits include modest horror hits like As Above, So Below and Quarantine, might find this moment to be part of some commentary on colonialism and the disposability of Asian bodies within global capitalism. Yet, there is very little evidence that the film rises to that level of understanding, or that it cares much at all about the hundreds of Southeast Asian people it shows being slaughtered.

Rather, that body on the floor remains nameless, just like almost every other Asian person in the film. There are actually no major characters in No Escape— those with a substantial amount of lines — who are Asian. The closest might be the reoccurring screaming bad guys who chase the Dwyer family with machetes and rifles, whose words remain untranslated. Or “Kenny Rogers,” a sidekick to Hammond who appears for a few minutes here and there, and whose actual name is never given.

In fact, the entire country in which this film takes place, also remains nameless. Though it was recognizably filmed in Thailand, the people of color on screen are given no precise culture or background. At times there are vague references to an economic crisis, beggars with injuries from land mines, and a monarchy which is in the process of being overthrown. The film reveals that wherever they are borders Vietnam (which Thailand doesn’t, but Cambodia, China and Laos do) and Annie claims to have read that the place is a “Fourth World” country (not meant as a compliment). Thus the Southeast Asian people in No Escape are stand-ins for all the human beings who live in the poorest parts of this mythical non-white land called “Asia.”

The film uses “othering” images like this to create fear for its intended white audience — from ominous shots of eels in an open-air market to actual visual references to events like the Tiananmen Square massacre. Most often it’s simply the appearance of a non-white person, especially one who isn’t speaking English, which is meant to create an environment of discomfort and danger.

There’s even an awful joke about eating dog meat near the end of the film, clearly meant to disgust the audience. It’s worth noting though that most people in Thailand do not eat dog meat and there has actually been increased activism in the area recently around banning its consumption. It may be a practice more common in other countries, but since we don’t know which country we’re in, this joke just reinforces the film’s stereotyping of the entirety of Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, as a “backwards” or “gross” place to Western eyes.

This generalization is not unintentional or a lazy mistake either. It specifically allows the director to include various “frightening” cinematic tropes of people of color — from what they eat, to how they speak, to a general association with terrorism.

Credit: The Weinstein Company

In his review at The Collider, Matt Goldberg suggests that the film would have been improved had it included zombies instead of real people, because “when you try to go realistic…you come away with an action film that’s incredibly uncomfortable in how it dehumanizes an entire race.” Yet, in many ways, there is an intended association with zombies in No Escape which serves to demonize Asian people even more.

In his essay Zombie Orientals Ate My Brain! Orientalism in Contemporary Zombie Film and Fiction, Eric Hamako argues that zombie films have long expressed “anxieties about the lower-class racial Other trying (and failing) to take on American values.” Thus the first hint that the Dwyers have entered the zombie apocalypse is perhaps when they meet “Kenny Rogers” at the airport, the local man who poorly imitates a particular American country singer. As the comical Kenny drives them to their hotel, swerving wildly and singing terribly, Jack and Annie look at each other, feeling their first inkling of distress.

Hamako, comparing Western portrayals of protestors in the Middle East or China to those of zombies, goes on to write that “the threat of the horde helps explain why a supposedly stupid, weak enemy [becomes] a lethal threat.” Because through the Orientalist racist lens, individual “others,” like Kenny, aren’t capable of being powerful— but as a “horde” they can become terrifying.

Relying on mobs of people of color to create fear on screen is not a new cinematic technique, and even shows up in far more prestigious films. In an essay on Argo, the Oscar-winning drama depicting the escape of US embassy personnel from Iran in 1979, professor Juan Cole writes that the violence of brown crowds in the film lacks context, and thus “the Iranian characters are depicted as full of mindless rage.”

This practice is not unique to Hollywood either, but simply a reflection of age-old fears of people of color organizing, not dissimilar from how certain media outlets have falsely portrayed the #BlackLivesMatter movement as a leaderless mob. Or how the killer in Charleston expressed a fear that black people were “taking over our country.” Or, quite literally, how one white police officer this month defended the 2013 killing of Jonathan Ferrell — who was shot 10 times — by claiming the 24 year-old black man appeared to be in a “zombie state.”

In No Escape, the depiction of Asians as zombies reflects a particularly terrible strain of xenophobia, often called “yellow peril” (or “yellow terror”). John Dowers, in his book, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, describes its relationship to racism:

“[T]he vision of the menace from the East was always more racial rather than national. It derived not from concern with any one country or people in particular, but from a vague and ominous sense of the vast, faceless, nameless yellow horde: the rising tide, indeed, of color.”

The film may portend a critique of the United States, by putting its white characters through hell, but it never refutes this portrayal of Asians as violent “others.” Or the idea that Southeast Asian countries are dirty, wild places. It partially attributes the chaos of this hyper-violent foreign place on white mistakes, but never attempts to humanize the people living there. We hear that the rebels out for “blood” are protesting the American control of their water supply, and yet we see very little of how this physically impacts their lives, or why it matters so much to them. Instead, by leaving the location and its people largely in the realm of darkness, it re-enacts elements of the colonialism it pretends to be against.

No Escape ends with a story of birth — Jack recounting how his eldest daughter, when born, fought her way back from the brink of death — because the film is, in many ways, a story of re-birth for white Americans. This is a Frankenstein-like thriller about white people finding a way to escape the “monsters” they seem to have created. It matters little that those “monsters” are actual people — human beings not born in the imagination of white Americans. The goal here is to give white audiences a bit of a thrill, and to make a quick buck while ultimately leaving them feeling better about their position in the world. It’s no coincidence that the story ends with the Americans being saved by the people of Vietnam.

The film excuses past atrocities, and then works to glorify white supremacy. Near the beginning of the mayhem, a shot of local rebels violently attacking the military is juxtaposed with one of Jack nobly diving to protect a local mother and her child caught in the skirmish. Throughout, he and his wife, using their apparently superior intellect and strength, manage to escape gruesome scenarios which people of color can’t seem to navigate. The white American man thinks to steal a hotel map to figure out how to find and save his daughter, or puts on a clever disguise to steal a motorcycle, but the non-white civilians dying around him are always a step too slow.

Even as Jack and Annie participate in the violence themselves, at no point in the film is it truly in question who the real “good guys” are. It’s most certainly the married white couple struggling to save their relationship amidst this chaos (the camera can’t help but linger over the wedding band on Jack’s hand) and the drunken, misogynistic — yet lovably wise — Hammond.

When he tells Jack that it’s all his fault that these people are fighting, and that they are simply trying to protect their families, Hammond is still not scary. He’s not a zombie. That role is reserved exclusively for the emotionless non-white killers on screen, as they hack away at bodies and shoot people in the head.

We are given no opportunity to feel real empathy for these “others.” Instead, we’re meant to feel thankful that despite the terribleness of what the white Americans have done in the past, some local people are still willing to help them (sometimes via a bribe, other times, out of the kindness of their heart). Yet because none of these forgiving characters are even given names — let alone any kind of personality — Dowdle forces the audience to wonder why the rest of the Southeast Asian “horde” can’t just get over it.

This manipulative technique, and obsession with absolution, recalls the way white media loves to ask black family members of those killed by whites if they have “forgiven” the killers, yet black protestors in Baltimore, expressing anger and sadness after the murder of Freddie Gray, are condemned and called “a threat to civilization.” Reflecting on this dichotomy after the massacre at Charleston’s AME Church earlier this year, Stacey Patton at the Washington Post wrote that “the almost reflexive demand of forgiveness, especially for those dealing with death by racism, is about protecting whiteness, and America as a whole.”

Credit: The Weinstein Company

The two white daughters in particular are used, throughout the film, to show Asian people that the U.S. isn’t that bad. And their “innocence,” which is apparently conveyed just by looking at them, does often convince local people to assist the Dwyers.

Meanwhile, not a single girl of color or woman of color speaks an important line of dialogue in the entire film. In fact, women of color remain the most indistinct group of all in No Escape. They are more likely to be referenced in relation to sex work than they are to speak. Which taps into another racist, misogynistic tradition of exotifying and hyper-sexualizing Asian women.

The dismissal of women of color is consistent with most Hollywood films, but also mirrors the particularly racist ideas in early zombie films, like 1932's White Zombie, which takes place in Haiti and of which Kyle Allkins writes:

In contrast to the intense concern about the white woman’s enslavement, the kidnapping and indenture of native people (non-Westerners) through zombification is usually not represented as an injustice.

This is driven home by a scene where menacing local men grab Annie and threaten to rape her (before they are rescued by the lovable white misogynist, Hammond), which also reinforces a particularly disgusting racist trope, as UC San Diego professor Yen Le Espiritu describes it, of depicting Asian men as “a sexual danger to innocent white women.”

But when you consider the fact that the U.S. military has never formally acknowledged the “mass rape and sexual abuse” they committed during the Vietnam war, images of Asian men threatening white women, being later juxtaposed with those of a white family being welcomed by the Vietnamase (not to mention the exoneration of Hammond), suggests another disturbing attempt to erase history.

Contrary to the title, this is a movie which is attempting to provide an escape — for a very specific American audience.

In a 2013 discussion of how horror films work, published at The Dissolve, Scott Tobias remarks that “what scares us in movies is the unknown,” while Tasha Robinson adds that it is perhaps specifically “the unknowability of people’s hidden motives.”

In No Escape, Dowdle keeps details about the exact location mysterious, and he leaves all the non-white characters without any discernible backstory in order to create a sense of dislocation and to underscore the terrifying strangeness of his mass of villains.

Yet, though the film may largely take place in what Todd VanDerWerff calls horror’s “realm of the monstrous,” it’s also an action-thriller, and thus the fears on screen are not entirely presented as fantasy. By “evoking real events,” as Stephen Dalton writes in The Hollywood Reporter, No Escape actually centers itself in the present day. A place where its white audience might be familiar with stories of violent uprisings by people of color in far away lands — or protests happening right outside their windows.

Despite its meager attempts to assign culpability to white conquerers, the film very clearly celebrates its white characters, and puts the audiences sympathies with the oppressors — not the oppressed. It offers no solutions, but rather encourages repulsion at unknowable people of color marching in the streets.

In other words, it argues against the value of black and brown lives — associates groups of Asian people with zombies — and insidiously forgives white men for the violent, racist, and sexist systems they have created.

The real unknown then is just how long the tyranny of white men in Hollywood, which one-hundred years after Birth of a Nation continues to produce such atrocious and dehumanizing cinema, will be allowed to survive. The real horror is how many viewers, conditioned by years of this kind of imagery, might watch No Escape and obliviously express love for its “heart-pounding action,” call it “a pretty good ride,” or go so far as to label it “masterful.” Or how many white Americans, the ones who already recoil when passing groups of people of color, might walk out of the theatre this weekend feeling like their terrifying worldview has been affirmed.