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Only six years separate the production of Logan’s Run (1976) from that of Blade Runner (1982), yet those intervening years form a watershed in how science fiction imagined the future. The first movie depicts the year 2274. The setting is futuristic, and the people so beautiful that one significant detail may go unnoticed. Eventually, the penny drops—everyone is white! The future looks very different in the second movie. We’re only in the year 2019, and whites are already a minority in Los Angeles; indeed, if we exclude the replicants, there don’t seem to be many left.
This change in our imagined future is especially noticeable if we compare pre-1980 movies with post-1980 remakes. In The Time Machine (1960), the future is inhabited by two races: the Eloi and the Morlocks. Both are descended from present-day humans, but only the Eloi still look human. Not only that, they have fair skin and blonde hair. It’s the year 802701, and those folks are still around! The Eloi look a lot different in the 2002 remake: they are now a dark-skinned people of mixed Afro-Asian descent, in contrast to the pale Morlocks. This physical difference is absent from the original film and the book itself, which repeatedly describes the Eloi as fair-skinned: “[I was] surrounded by an eddying mass of bright, soft-colored robes and shining white limbs” (Wells, 1898, p. 24); “I would watch for [Weena’s] tiny figure of white and gold” (Wells, 1898, p.41); “I looked at little Weena sleeping beside me, her face white and starlike under the stars” (Wells, 1898, p. 57). In the remake, the only people who look approximately white are the Über-Morlocks … and they feed on human flesh. A fair-skinned viewer would be torn between two conflicting responses: a desire to identify with the Über-Morlocks as People Who Look Like Me and a desire to hate them as morally worthless. This situation is almost the reverse of the original story line: the Time Traveller is misled by the familiar appearance of the Eloi and develops affection for them, even love, only to realize that they are as different from him as the hideous Morlocks.
Even before 1980, we see some awareness in sci-fi that whites would, one day, no longer have societies of their own. Star Trek(1966-1969) led the way in this direction; nonetheless, the ship’s crew looks overwhelmingly white, partly because the American population was still overwhelmingly white during those years and partly because of the small pool of African American actors. Very few of the latter appear in guest roles, which were just as often filled by part-Asian actresses like France Nuyen, born of a Vietnamese father and a Roma mother (Elaan of Troyius), or Barbara Luna, of mixed Filipino and European descent (Mirror, Mirror). This was the 1960s, when antiracism was still taking shape and partly driven, apparently, by a desire to see exotic-looking women.
All the same, those years saw a general tendency to raise the visibility of African Americans on both the big screen and the little screen. Sci-fi was no exception, particularly by the 1980s. In the Alien series (1979, 1986, 1992), the casts are multiracial, although whites still predominate. Just as significantly, the taboo against a non-white killing a white is broken, albeit in a seemingly acceptable way:
In Alien itself the representative of the company is an android named Ash (something white) – he is a white man who is not human. This is revealed when an African-American crew member pulls off Ash’s head: the black man reveals the nothingness of the white man and destroys him by depriving him of his brain, the site of his spirit. The crew bring this severed head back to temporary electronic life to find out how the alien can be destroyed. He tells them that it is indestructible and one of the crew realizes that he admires it. ‘I admire its purity’, he says, adding in a cut to an extreme, intensifying close-up, ‘unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.’ Purity and absence of affect, the essence of the aspiration of whiteness, said in a state of half-life by a white man who has never really been alive anyway. (Dyer, 2000)
It is really only with Blade Runner (1982) that popular culture began to acknowledge the imminence of white demise. We think of the 1980s as the Reagan Era, a time when White America pushed back after a long retreat during the previous two decades. In reality, the retreat picked up speed. The endgame was already apparent to anyone who gave it much thought, like Blade Runner‘s scriptwriters. Thus, in the year 2019, we see whites inhabiting a world that is no longer theirs, with some like Sebastian living alone within the decaying shell of their past—the grand but neglected building where most of the action takes place. The least pathetic white is Rachael, a replicant. She also seems the least WASP-looking with her jet-black hair and her family photos, which suggest a southern European, Armenian, or Jewish origin. The photos themselves are a lie—like the loner Deckard she has no real collective identity, but she does have an imagined one.
We now come to a common theme of love stories: how a fallen man is redeemed by the love of a woman. Here, the fallen man is Deckard—a remnant of a White America in terminal decline. The woman is Rachael, who wants to give him a future of love, marriage, and family, even though this prospect is no more viable than her own imaginary past.
Rachael offers the possibility of developing true emotions [...] The two dark ‘whites’ [Rachael and Gaff] offer something definite, real, physical to the nothingness of the indifferently fair white man. In the first version, Deckard and Rachael escape, the film ending with a lyrical (if naff) flight away from Los Angeles and perhaps Earth: the dark woman’s discovery of true feeling (she weeps) redeems the fair – truly white – man’s emptiness. This ending is absent from the ‘director’s cut’; the dark woman cannot redeem the fair man (Dyer, 2000)
Blade Runner is a film noir with no happy ending in the traditional sense. Even if the two of them did escape to build a life together, it’s hard to see how this new life could evolve into anything more than two deracinated individuals with no past and no clear future. Can Rachael have children? Doubtful. It’s also doubtful whether Deckard would want to settle down and become a family man. What would he do to support a family? Go back to hunting replicants?
The film does not address these questions. Nor should it. Whether you are for or against, white demise is something to be addressed collectively, and not at the level of individuals. This point is made in the writings of Richard Dyer and other postmodernists who welcome a future of collective death and feel that whites should come to terms with it:
Whites often seem to have a special relation with death, to yearn for it but also to bring it to others. [...] I have been wary of dwelling on the fearfulness – sometimes horrible, sometimes bleak – of the white association with death. To do so risks making whites look tragic and sad and thus comes perilously close to a ‘me-too’, ‘we’re oppressed’, ‘poor us’ position that seems to equalise suffering, to ignore that active role of whites in promulgating inequality and suffering. It could easily be taken as giving us a let-out from acknowledging the privilege and effortless power of even the most lowly of those designated as white. Yet, if the white association with death is the logical outcome of the way in which whites have had power, then perhaps recognition of our deathliness may be the one thing that will make us relinquish it.
This sounds ominous. It strangely resembles what some people wrote in the 19th century about the disappearing American Indian and the disappearing Australian Aborigines. It was all for the best, some argued. As “savages” declined in numbers and disappeared, their lands would be resettled and better societies created. Today, whites are being seen in this light. Their departure from existence will purportedly bring an end to inequality and suffering, thus making the world a better place.
So goes the narrative, and few seem to be challenging it, no matter how outrageous it becomes.
Imagined reality often foretells the real thing—not because the imaginers have a special knack for prediction, but because they end up playing an active role in shaping the future. The death of White America was already being imagined over three decades ago by people who, ultimately, had become reconciled to that fate and even looked forward to it. Moreover, this endgame seems to have struck a responsive chord among the public. As Dyer (2000) argues, “the death of whiteness is, as far as white identity goes, the cultural dominant of our times, that we really do feel we’re played out.”
King, C.R. and D.J. Leonard. (2004). Is neo white? Reading race, watching the trilogy, in M. Kapell and W.G. Doty (eds). Jacking in to the Matrix Franchise: cultural reception and interpretation, (pp. 32-46), A&C Black.
Dyer, R. (2000). Whites are nothing: Whiteness, representation and death, in I. Santaolalla (ed.) “New” Exoticisms: Changing Patterns in the Construction of Otherness, (pp. 135-155), Rodopi
Wells, H.G. (1898). The Time Machine, online edition