Whiteness Staring into Outer Space: the racial politics of Elysium

Sean Redmond |

There is an often a repeated scene in the Hollywood science fiction film in which a main character looks up, towards the stars, and quietly dreams of travelling in outer space. This scene either foreshadows, or prophesises, the time when they will go inter-galactic journeying, as if it is their manifest destiny to do so, or it confers on them an earth-bound future, outer space only ever remaining a dream. This is Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) plight in Blade Runner – he looks up at the advertising blimp that offers him the chance to move to an off-world colony, but his future is set on the dystopian shores of an Earth in peril. Deckard just isn’t white enough.

The lead characters that get to travel in outer space are almost exclusively white, and if also young are exclusively charged with leading a failing human civilisation into outer space to begin again, as if it is their white-sanctified manifest destiny to do so. Of course, their whiteness isn’t named or identified as the position from which they speak and act from. To the contrary, this is effaced and naturalized as if their whiteness just is the invisible material out of which their heroic humanity grows and privileges itself. As Richard Dyer argues, this is very much the relationship of whiteness to power in the cultural world:

The equation of being white with being human secures a position of power. White people have power and believe that they think, feel and act like and for all people; white people, unable to see their particularity, cannot take account of other peoples; white people create the dominant images of the world and don’t quite see that they construct the world in their own image; white people sets standards of humanity by which they are bound to succeed and others bound to fail. (1997, 9)

Elysium 'Save' posterNear the beginning of Elysium (Blomkamp, 2013), an orphaned Young Max (Maxwell Perry Cotton) looks towards Elysium, the man-made space station that orbits Earth, in the hope that he can one day live on it. He promises to take Young Faye (Valentina Giron) there with him, implicitly re-signing the Adam and Eve myth as he does do. The Nun (Yolanda Abudd) who looks after him prophesises that he has been created (by God) for something special. Young Max’s white, masculine messianic status is thus being confirmed and conferred as the film’s narrative takes miraculous shape. His saviour status is later repeated in the film when an Adult Max (Matt Damon) is told by rebel-hacker Spider (Wagner Moura), “you can save everyone”. The star image of Matt Damon helps underpin this representation: his light coloured hair and blue eyes is a “perfect fit” for this type of essentially good heroic figure.

Nonetheless, the meaning of whiteness is ideologically struggled over in the film, with different good and bad versions of it being critically addressed if never explicitly recognized as being an issue. That is to say, Blomkamp’s film offers up different, contradictory, and sometimes competing versions of whiteness, something I will now go onto address.

The film is set in 2154 where the privileged and wealthy elite have abandoned Earth for a utopian space station (called “Elysium”). Poverty, crime and disease has taken its toll on the under-class who have been left behind, and who now serve as oppressed and exploited slaves to their Elysium masters. As Dinnen observes:

The movie focuses on the slums of near future L.A. and — perhaps unsurprisingly given Blomkamp’s last film District 9 (2009) — plays on the real territorial paranoia of the U.S. over alien invasion: that the favelas of Central and South America, and the political structures they embody, are always threatening ascension. In Elysium the “edge city” is the whole world, and the technocratic power base is a spaceship garden, circling the earth’s orbit. “Elysium” is a green and white paradise; a techno-civic environment in which humans and nature are equally managed, and manicured. “Elysium”, visually, looks a lot like Disney’s Epcot theme park. (2013)

A class and race high/low spatial metaphor is established and employed in the film to narrativise its politics. While the space station Elysium is not exclusively populated by white people, the “de-raced” and blank signifiers that non-white people are represented through, coupled with the fact that they inhabit a city made out of clean and pure aesthetic lines and sterile environmental perfectionism, point to a (symbolically) white elite controlling and regulating their new Eden.

By contrast, down on Earth, the unwashed white and the impoverished non-white masses struggle for survival on a battle-scarred planet ruled with an iron fist by the hyper-rational despots on Elysium. In ideological terms, perfected or hyper-whiteness has taken flight to outer space while maintaining its sweatshop commercial operations on a depleted Earth where only the poor or “trash” white, and “true” ethnic minorities, remain. The film is conscious of its racial politics, if it nonetheless subtextually re-centres whiteness – through the messianic figure of Max – as the identity that ultimately leads humanity away from these unequal power structures.

Jodie Foster as DelacourtThese prestige hyper-white power structures have to be given symbolic human form for them to be contested and resisted. Two of the film’s antagonists, Delacourt (Jodi Foster), and Kruger (Sharlto Copy) embody pathological versions of whiteness where they are coded as selfish and destructive.

Delacourt is positioned as asexual, cold and heartless, who wants to keep the purity of the Elysium bloodline free from the unwashed masses below. Her blonde, bobbed hair, masculine suits, and pale skin suggest a hyper-white frigidity and excessive rationalism that is anti-human and anti-reproduction (given that it is Jodi Foster playing the part, there may well be latent homophobia wrapped up in her representation). Kruger is a one-man killing-machine, but his South African accent and allusions to the apartheid era suggest a revengeful white hunter intent on reversing the gains made by racial equality.

By contrast and as prophesised, Adult Max (Matt Damon) makes it up to Elysium, leading a resistance group to overthrow this destructive white-elite. Their downfall at the end of the film is directly enabled or enacted by Max’s self-sacrifice: he has to give his life so that the virtual code, embedded in a super-computer and that defines who a citizen is, can be broken. Once Max’s death triggers the democratization of Elysium, all the people on earth have access to its resources, which include cancer-curing technologies and machines that can fix broken spines.

The film is on the one hand critical of race-based inequality, and yet on the other creates a messianic hero who speaks and acts from a position of white power. Adult Max heralds Elysium into a post-race era of inequality at the same time he secures whiteness as its foundational architect.

Elysium endingElysium is of course a barely concealed critique of health care in America, with the space station being the symbol of private medical care, out of reach for the majority of the population. Simon Guerrier calls the film “Obamacare in Space” (2013). There is a sense then that twentieth-first century whiteness is shifting its terrain of bio-political operations, on the run from its own extreme manifestations, aware that the age calls upon social equality, while ensuring that its power remains strong if openly contested.

References

Dinnen, Zara, 2013. “Digital Metaphors: Editor’s Introduction”, Alluvium, available at: http://www.alluvium-journal.org/2013/12/04/digital-metaphors-editors-introduction/ (accessed 17th November, 2014).

Dyer, Richard, 1997. White. London: Routledge.

Guerrier, Simon 2013. “Obamacare in Space”, The Lancet, Vol 382, 28th September, available at: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2813%2962022-X/fulltext (accessed 15th November, 2014).

Bio

Sean Redmond is an Associate Professor in Media and Communication at Deakin University. He has research interests in film and television aesthetics, film and television genre, film authorship, film sound, stardom and celebrity, and film phenomenology. He has published nine books including The cinema of Takeshi Kitano: Flowering Blood (Columbia, 2013), and Celebrity and the Media (Palgrave, 2014), and with Su Holmes he edits the journal Celebrity Studies.