Monday, April 14, 2008

Race and the Resident Evil 5 Trailer

A curious firestorm developed last week over comments that N'Gai Croal made about the Resident Evil 5 trailer.

In short, he said the trailer was racist.

Now before we get started, if we want to intelligently discuss this, you need to go watch the trailer for yourself: Resident Evil 5 Trailer.

The Cliff's Notes version, because I know some of you can't access the trailer from work, is this: white protagonist walks into a dusty, ramshackle town. Everyone in the town is black. There are a few seconds of establishing shots, then we see a black man, a very black man, looking out from the shadows. For a split-second, all we can are the whites of his eyes, then his body is slowly revealed.

The white protagonist arrives. He strides down Main street with a "sheriff is going to clean up this town" vibe. Suddenly, he notices that the streets, full of life only a few seconds ago, are suddenly empty. He walks into one of the buildings and two men are killing a third man. He shoots and kills one of the assailants, who then turns into a zombie and attacks him.

From that point on, we see a succession of angry black mobs attacking the protagonist. What's particularly striking about these mobs is how un-zombie like they seem. This isn't Dead Rising, where every zombie can be clearly identified. Many of these people look almost normal. Just a bunch of black people trying to kill a white man.

Like I said, I strongly encourage you to watch the trailer for yourself, but I believe that's an accurate description of what you'd see.

Here's what N'Gai had to say:
The point isn’t that you can’t have black zombies. There was a lot of imagery in that trailer that dovetailed with classic racist imagery. What was not funny, but sort of interesting, was that there were so many gamers who could not at all see it. Like literally couldn’t see it. So how could you have a conversation with people who don’t understand what you’re talking about and think that you’re sort of seeing race where nothing exists?

And this:
It’s like when you engage that kind of imagery you have to be careful with it. It would be like saying you were going to do some sort of zombie movie that appeared to be set in Europe in the 1940’s with skinny, emaciated, Hasidic-looking people. If you put up that imagery people would be saying, “Are you crazy?” Well, that’s what this stuff looks like. This imagery has a history. It has a history and you can’t pretend otherwise. That imagery still has a history that has to be engaged, that has to be understood.

I encourage you to read the full interview, because his comments were meausured and thoughtful. In response, here were some of the comments posted at Kotaku:
"if there's a black person in anything it's automatically racist"
"I think this speaks more about Croal's own prejudices on what he sees than anything else. "

"This is ridiculous. I think people are paying more attention to being offended, rather than focusing on what they're offended by. I totally agree with Sweet Tooth -- "if there's a black person in anything it's automatically racist."
"i dont know who wrote this piece of shit about the game but im 100% he or she want to create a polimic or something ... just dont feed the troll ... eve if she has tits"
"what kind of namie is N'Gai?"
"clearly this fool has no idea what this game is really going to be about & is drawing idiotic conclusions from the most insignificant things that no-one gives two-sh*ts about..."
"Would he rather there be all white people in Africa? Who's the racist now?"

That's only a small sampling--there were hundreds like them.

So there are two questions to consider, really: first, what about the people making these comments, and second, is the trailer really racist?

I want to tread lightly here, because this is such a sensitive topic, so let me come up with a descriptive (but not offensive) term to refer to the people who made those comments:
ignorant dickheads.

I'd be more worried about those people, but they'll all starve to death soon, because they're too stupid to find food.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's move on to the trailer. What was N'Gai referring to when when he mentioned "classic racist imagery?"

He was talking about The Brute.

The Brute caricature was created in the U.S. in the post-slavery era, and it portrayed every black man as a dangerous animal--dangerous because he was no longer controlled by slavery. I'm going to warn you, the following passage is very painful to read, but it's important, so I'm quoting it at length:
The brute caricature portrays Black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal -- deserving punishment, maybe death. This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace. Black brutes are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims, especially White women. Charles H. Smith, a writer at the end of the 1890s, claimed, "A bad negro is the most horrible creature upon the earth, the most brutal and merciless."1 Clifton R. Breckinridge, a contemporary of Smith's, said of the Black race, "when it produces a brute, he is the worst and most insatiate brute that exists in human form."2 George T. Winston, another "Negrophobic" writer, claimed:
"When a knock is heard at the door [a White woman] shudders with nameless horror. The black brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal. A mad bull or tiger could scarcely be more brutal. A whole community is frenzied with horror, with the blind and furious rage for vengeance."

During slavery the dominant caricatures of Blacks -- Mammy, Coon, Tom, and picaninny-- portrayed them as childlike, ignorant, docile, groveling, and, in general, harmless. These portrayals were pragmatic and instrumental. Proponents of slavery created and promoted Black images that justified slavery and soothed White consciences. If slaves were childlike, for example, then a paternalistic institution where masters acted as quasi-parents to their slaves was humane, even morally right. More importantly, slaves were rarely depicted as brutes because that portrayal might have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

During the Radical Reconstruction period (1867-1877), many White writers argued that without slavery -- which supposedly suppressed their animalistic tendencies -- Blacks were reverting to criminal savagery. The belief that the newly-emancipated Blacks were a "black peril" continued into the early 1900s. Writers like the novelist Thomas Nelson Page lamented that the slavery-era "good old darkies" had been replaced by the "new issue" (Blacks born after slavery) whom he described as "lazy, thriftless, intemperate, insolent, dishonest, and without the most rudimentary elements of morality." Page, who helped popularize the images of cheerful and devoted Mammies and Sambos in his early books, became one of the first writers to introduce a literary Black brute. In 1898 he published Red Rock, a Reconstruction novel, with the heinous figure of Moses, a loathsome and sinister Black politician. Moses tried to rape a White woman: "He gave a snarl of rage and sprang at her like a wild beast." He was later lynched for "a terrible crime."

The "terrible crime" most often mentioned in connection with the Black brute was rape, more specifically, the rape of a White woman. At the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the virulent, anti-Black propaganda that found its way into scientific journals, local newspapers, and best-selling novels focused on the stereotype of the Black rapist. The claim that Black brutes were, in epidemic numbers, raping White women became the public rationalization for the lynching of Blacks.

The lynching of Blacks was relatively common between Reconstruction and World War II. According to Tuskegee Institute data, between the years 1882 and 1951, 4,730 people were lynched in the United States: 3,437 Black and 1,293 White.7 Many of the White lynching victims were foreigners or belonged to oppressed groups, for example, Mormons, Shakers, and Catholics. By the early 1900s lynching had a decidedly racial character, that is, White mobs lynched Blacks. Almost 90 percent of all the lynchings of Blacks occurred in Southern or border states.

Many of these victims were ritualistically tortured. In 1904, Luther Holbert and his wife were burned to death. They were "tied to trees and while the funeral pyres were being prepared, they were forced to hold out their hands while one finger at a time was chopped off. The fingers were distributed as souvenirs. The ears...were cut off. Holbert was beaten severely, his skull fractured and one of his eyes, knocked out with a stick, hung by a shred from the socket." Members of the mob then speared the victims with a large corkscrew, "the spirals tearing out big pieces of...flesh every time it was withdrawn."

A mob lynching was a brutal and savage event, and it necessitated that the lynching victim be seen as equally brutal and savage; as these lynchings became more common and more brutal, so did the assassination of the Black character. In 1900, Charles Carroll's The Negro A Beast claimed that Blacks were more akin to apes than to human beings, and theorized that Blacks had been the "tempters of Eve." Carroll said that mulatto brutes were the rapists and murderers of his time. Dr. William Howard, writing in the respectable journal Medicine in 1903, claimed that "the attacks on defenseless White women are evidence of racial instincts" (in Blacks), and the Black birthright was "sexual madness and excess." Thomas Dixon's, The Leopard's Spots, a 1902 novel, claimed that emancipation had transformed Blacks from "a chattel to be bought and sold into a beast to be feared and guarded."

In 1905 Dixon published his most popular novel, The Clansman. In this book he described Blacks as "half child, half animal, the sport of impulse, whim, and conceit...a being who, left to his will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no word of love, whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger."13 The Clansman includes a detailed and gory account of the rape of a young White virgin by a Black brute. "A single tiger springs, and the black claws of the beast sank into the soft white throat." After the rape, the girl and her mother both commit suicide, and the Black brute is lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. This book served as the basis for the movie The Birth of a Nation (which also portrayed some Blacks as rapist-beasts), justified the lynching of Blacks, and gloried the Ku Klux Klan. Carroll, Howard, and Dixon did not exceed the prevailing racism of the so-called Progressive Era.

Beasts. Brutes. The black peril. Black devils.

That's what N'Gai was talking about when he spoke of "classic racist imagery"--the notion that black people represent a lurking evil that lives just below the surface.

You know, like they're diseased.

The trailer compounds its close similarity to classic racist imagery because the zombies look largely normal. This isn't Dead Rising, where zombies are clearly and easily distinguished. At times, you'll see a close-up of a face and something is clearly "zombie" about that person, but much of the trailer shows large groups attacking, and because their physical movements seem almost completely unaffected, it doesn't look like a zombie mob, it looks like a black mob. The mob has a beastly, predatory quality, not a zombie quality.

There was no allegation by N'Gai that Capcom intentionally did this, and I don't believe they did. When Capcom sells games into a different culture, though, the onus is upon them to have a basic understanding of what would be considered offensive in that culture, just as American developers must do when they sell games in Japan. And Japan has a conflicted history of its own when dealing with black caricatures--the popular Dakko-chan character (which is clearly a variation on the Mammy caricature) is just one example.

Anyone with an understanding of our own history will be repelled by what the trailer methodically evokes. Asking why more people don't understand our own history is a topic for another day.

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