Lately I’ve been thinking about how race plays out in science fiction, horror, and related genres. Specifically, I’m interested in multiracial ensemble casts. There are a lot of ’em. Or at least, more than you see in mainstream films.
Case in point: Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007).
An interesting movie, a bit of a disaster, but still one I kind of love. Without going into some of its more egregious race issues (Spoiler: Michelle Yeoh dies cradling a seedling in lotus pose), it’s interesting because it casts a lot of non-white people as its expendable cast members. Several of them are Asian. This points up an interesting thing about American movies, sci-fi or otherwise: they tend to cast One of Each. Or just One. Usually, the minority character in an American film is a black person…and s/he may be the only POC in the movie. Once in a while there’s another black character as well, but usually in that case, everyone else is safely white.
In Sunshine, Boyle’s starting cast is Cliff Curtis (Maori), Cillian Murphy (Irish), Michelle Yeoh (Malaysian), Hiroyuki Sanada (Japanese), Rose Byrne (Australian), Benedict Wong (English of Asian heritage, and hey, he has a Twitter account at wongrel), and Chris Evans and Mark Strong (American.) That’s a pretty international group, and a very mixed-race group, a nice little party for a mission into space to save the planet. For the first quarter of the film, three of the main characters are Asian or Asian-heritage–and this is never addressed. Race overall is never addressed, at least not explicitly, and the concerns of the film don’t seem to lie with race implicitly, either.
So what’s to say about it, then? Well, compare this cast to the cast of, say, Alien (1979), in which race was similarly not a concern. In keeping with Hollywood film practice, there was a black character in the ensemble cast (and two women.) The rest of the crew was blindingly (sorry, John Hurt, but that scene where you wake up in the pod is whiter than salt) white.
So, by the time Sunshine is made in 2007, are we post-race, or something? I really doubt it. For one thing, the underlying machinery of finance and promotion demands a star, and that star is…Cillian Murphy. Is it fair to say that in 2007 you can take a crew of many races into space, but you still need a white man to power the trip?
Maybe, maybe not.
Are we making progress, race-wise? Sharing the power around a little more, not making some of the same bad old assumptions about who’s interesting, who’s worthwhile, who’s a real person?
Maybe, maybe not.
P.S. Interestingly, the voice of the spaceship Icarus is also played by a POC actor, Chipo Chung. Who has about the most awesome name I’ve heard all week.