Blade Runner is my favorite movie of all time. And I am super-excited to see the sequel, Blade Runner 2049. But I’ve come to realize that the movie takes on a different meaning in the age of Black Lives Matter.
“More human than human”
Released in 1982 and directed by Ridley Scott, the dystopian sci-fi movie Blade Runner is set in 2019 Los Angeles where the rain never ceases and the sun is always shrouded by a thick curtain of smoggy clouds. The movie, loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, tells the story of a policeman named Deckard (Harrison Ford) from the “Blade Runner” unit. He is dispatched to “retire” (kill) five Replicants (androids) who have escaped from an Off-World colony and returned to Earth. They are the most sophisticated Replicants of a generation known as NEXUS-6. “More human than human,” is the motto of the Tyrell Corporation that creates them. The problem is that the NEXUS-6 Replicants have developed self-awareness and revolted against their human owners. Their return to Earth is driven by a desire to find a way to prolong their pre-programmed four-year lifespan.
I’ve been watching this movie (both the original studio release and the director’s cut) for the past 35 years. I’ve saturated myself with the richly-synthetic soundtrack by Vangelis, and spent many days as a teen learning to play the music by ear. I’ve read the script and watched the documentary about the movie. And I am eagerly anticipating the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, due out in October 2017.
But I saw something very different when I watched the movie a few days ago.
In anticipation of the release of the sequel, I sat down with friends to re-watch the original. It had been a few years since I last viewed the film. In that time, the Black Lives Matter movement, started in 2013 in response to police brutality and the murders of black citizens, has been working on my heart and mind. As a middle-class white woman who has benefited from privilege on so many levels, I know that the process of becoming “woke” is long and uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary.
“If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”
My growing awareness of issues around bias, white supremacy, and racial violence has caused me to look at the world in a different way. As Roy Batty, the head Replicant, says to the man who genetically-designed his eyes, “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.” Where I had previously thought of Blade Runner as a future-scape, what I see in the movie now is a metaphor for the ways in which blacks have been viewed and treated in this country for centuries and into the present time.
Blade Runner as a metaphor for racism? Really?
Granted, this may seem like a leap, since there are no people of African descent in the film, save for a few faces in the crowds. Except for Edward James Olmos (who plays a fellow detective in the Blade Runner unit), James Hong (a genetic engineer), and an assortment of minor ethnic characters, this is a film with white actors in the main roles.
And the NEXUS-6 Replicants are all white. Which is telling in and of itself. Did the Tyrell Corporation (or the film’s creators) deem it unsavory to create black Replicants? Would dark-skinned Replicants be too uncomfortable a reminder of the slave history of this country? Are Replicants of the caucasian flavor somehow more palatable?
These are not questions the film deals with. But they are questions I bring to the film. And now that I have begun to understand the ways in which people of color are targeted by violence and systemic racism, Blade Runner looks different to me than it did as a teenager in the 80s.
“Skin jobs, that’s what Bryant called Replicants. In history books he is the kind of cop used to call black men niggers.”
This is the one reference to race in the film. In Deckard’s overdubbed narration, he explains the kind of man he works for, and gives some insight into the ways in which humans regard Replicants. They were created to serve, to do the dirty and dangerous work. The women are “pleasure models” intended to provide sexual gratification. And both the male and female Replicants are designed to be violent killing machines for “death-squads” when necessary.
“You not come here! Illegal!”
Replicants were engineered to copy humans in all ways save one – no emotions. But in time, the Replicants do, in fact, develop feelings, and thus self-awareness. When they come to realize they are nothing more than slaves, they naturally rebel against their state of servitude. They turn on their owners, and do everything they can to escape and secure their freedom (including killing humans if necessary). Thus, they are deemed too dangerous for Earth itself. Replicants on Earth are “illegal.” And cops in the Blade Runner unit are sent out to kill any that return (ICE agents, anyone?).
This is exactly how the Europeans in the original slave trade, and the subsequent American slave owners, viewed Africans. They were – and often still are – viewed as subhuman, no better than animals, and devoid of emotions. When people of color “get out of hand” by being too emotional (angry) or demanding their freedom and equal rights, the police are sent out to use any means necessary to maintain “law and order” – including the use of deadly force.
The construct of race
A major theme in Blade Runner is the way in which humans engineer and construct their conceptualizations of themselves and each other, and this has parallels in the study of race theory. The idea that one human being can own another is notion that has, in a sense, been engineered – constructed – in human consciousness since the beginning of civilization.
On top of that, the concept of a “black” person is also a construct. In Africa, the natives did not think of themselves as “black.” It was only when Europeans with lighter skin saw an opportunity to colonize and enslave entire tribes of people throughout the continent that the category of blackness came into being. Eventually “blackness” became a cipher for all the negative qualities of humanity – aggressiveness, wildness, hyper-sexuality, superhuman physical abilities, and ferocious anger. These are exactly the qualities that humans in the Blade Runner world both exploit and simultaneously fear in the Replicants.
Less human than human
We could say that those who are categorized as “black” humans have historically functioned as Replicant-type automatons. They are expected to perform their duties of hard labor, domestic chores, and sexual servitude without question, without feelings, and with total obedience.
But of course, they are human. And they know in every cell of their bodies that their inhumane treatment is intolerable. As with the Replicants, African slaves rebelled against their owners, made desperate attempts to escape the brutality of their captivity, and did everything they could to secure their own freedom (even if it meant uprisings and killing their captors). Yet even after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and the Civil Rights Movement a century later, people of color continue to find themselves regarded as less than human by their white counterparts.
“Painful to live in fear, isn’t it? Nothing is worse than having an itch you can never scratch.”
I recently attended a training session by VISIONS, Inc., an organization founded by three black women in 1984 to help organizations and individuals deal with issues of diversity in a more effective way. One of the participants, a black man, shared how it has felt for him to be treated as “less than” because of his race. “I have felt inhuman,” he shared. “I feel that I’m regarded as disposable, replaceable, that my existence doesn’t really matter. I know that when I go certain places and encounter certain people, I’m perceived as a threat, even though I intend no harm.”
As a white person, this was necessary for me to hear. Because for hundreds of years, society has conditioned both white and black folk to think of blacks as dangerous, even murderous. Our interactions have been “colored” by mistrust, fear, and overreactions to perceived threats. This has become blatantly obvious in the stunning number of murders of blacks over the years, especially high-profile cases where police officers shoot unarmed blacks without provocation.
“Move on. Move on.”
There is a particular scene in Blade Runner which brought this home for me. Deckard discovers one of the Replicants named Zhora working as an exotic dancer in a bar. Zhora makes a run for it, trying to lose Deckard in the crowded city streets. But he catches up with her and aims his gun right at her back. He fires and she falls through breaking plate glass, fake snow swirling around her bloodied body.
I could not help but recall the 2015 video of Walter Scott being shot in the back eight times by officer Michael Slager in Charleston, North Carolina. Slager recently pled guilty to violating Scott’s civil rights – a rarity in law enforcement where only 35% of cases of fatal on-duty shootings end up in convictions. In most cases, the scene is similar to the one in the movie where Deckard simply shows his badge to the other officer, and walks away scott free while a recorded voice from the police cruiser drones repeatedly: “Move on. Move on. Move on.”
“Not very sporting to fire on an unarmed opponent. I thought you were supposed to be good. Aren’t you the good man?”
There are no consequences for Deckard shooting an unarmed woman in the back. If he came before a court of law they would undoubtedly agree (as most juries do today) that he perceived a threat and justifiably opened fire. What he did was not considered murder in the eyes of the law, because, ultimately, Zhora was not considered to be a human being. So her life did not matter. But the truth is, she was human, and her life did matter. She had feelings, had friends who cared about her, and wanted nothing more than freedom and to live her life.
Life is precisely what has been stolen from the NEXUS-6 Replicants. They are given no longer than four years, and then a genetically-programmed switch shuts them down and they die. It’s the failsafe to keep them under control, to prevent them from taking over.
Again, the metaphor for the black community is eerily resonant. Blacks statistically have a shorter lifespan (75 years) than their white counterparts (79 years). [For a great article cataloging the health issues related to black deaths, click here].
There are also many institutional structures that have been put in place to keep blacks “under control” and prevent them from “taking over.” Redistricting, gerrymandering, and red-lining. Higher interest rates charged for loans. Stop-and-frisk laws and stand-your-ground laws. Zero-tolerance rules, and excessive sentencing for criminal convictions. All of these (and more), plus the rise of blatant white supremacist groups to intimidate (and eliminate) people of color are just some of the ways in which modern racism manifests itself.
“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”
The constant reminder of being imprisoned by others’ racial attitudes was a point recently reiterated for me by Michael W. Waters, author of Stakes is High: Race, Faith, and Hope in America (Chalice Press). In a panel on preaching at the 2017 Wild Goose Festival, he reminded us how painful it is for a person of color to be trapped in their epidermis, knowing all the threats and risks that come with living in a body that has been constructed by race.
“I’m not in the business. I am the business.”
Interestingly, Blade Runner set the stage for other media to explore this question of what it means to be fully human versus subhuman and owned by those in power:
- The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode entitled “The Measure of a Man” dealt with the android Data’s trial to determine his status as an autonomous being instead of the “property” of Starfleet.
- The television series Humans follows the story line of Replicant-like humanoids taking over the jobs of real humans, with some of them developing consciousness through the release of a secret computer program.
- Even the reboot of the Planet of the Apes movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, portrays the primate-protagonist developing self-awareness, and raises questions about the meaning of personhood.
What Blade Runner and these other films and television programs urge us to consider is not just a future where we must confront the possibility of Artificial Intelligence and mind-altered primates gaining cognizance of “self,” but something much more immediate. They pose uncomfortable but important questions about the ways in which we regard dark-skinned humans as automatons or animals, and the ways in which such attitudes result in turning us into the evil we have projected onto “black” people.
Saved by the nailed hand
In the final scene of the battle between Roy and Deckard, it was not lost on me the significance of Roy saving Deckard from death. As the Blade Runner dangles from a girder at the top of a building, his fingers slip and he falls. But Roy grabs him and pulls him back up onto the roof with one hand. It is a hand stuck through with a nail he had used to keep his failing body alive the only way he knew how – with pain.
In that moment, Roy becomes a Christ-like figure, his hand reminiscent of Jesus’s own hand nailed to the cross. The crucifixion was a saving act. And Roy’s stunning last act – saving Deckard when he did not at all deserve saving – was a powerful scene of grace (complete with Roy’s white dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit).
As I learned in my VISIONS training, when it comes to racial reconciliation, wounded hands continue to reach out and grab us with a grace that will not let us go.
Blade Runner 2049 So White?
Despite the Black Lives Matter hermeneutic I’ve used to analyze Blade Runner, I must admit that the subtle metaphor for race relations I’m seeing in the film does not rescue it from its inherent whiteness. And as I watched the trailer for the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, I’m preparing myself for the same diversity let-down. Granted, the new movie obviously takes up again the questions of what it means to be human, and what it means to subjugate an entire people to slavery (“Every civilization was built on the back of a disposable work force,” says one of the characters, as we see a scene of manufactured bodies of various skin tones). But if the 3-minute sneak preview of the film is any indication, whiteness is still the dominate ethos of the film, and thus the director and producers. Because there appear to be no actors of color in any of the main roles.
This would be a shame. Because as stunning and visionary as the films are, their white-washing of racial diversity is a real blind spot.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”
The future I’m hoping for is the normalization and celebration of brownness and blackness to the point where both the pain and joy of the racial experience are woven into the fabric of our personal, interpersonal and societal relationships. But with more than 400 years of slavery and white supremacy in our past, and the continued resistance of our culture to do the work of racial reconciliation, it looks like the future I’m hoping for is even further away than 2049.
For another perspective on Blade Runner, check out: Do You Like Our Owl? ‘Blade Runner’ and Climate Change
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).