Elysium: Why is Max white?

Elysium

*A spoiler-free discussion*

I really enjoyed Elysium. It’s one of the few sff movies I’ve seen recently that is more than just an action movie. Its story about the disparity between the haves and the have-nots – now so distant they’re not even on the same planet – is old, a bit simplistic and rather heavy-handed, but it still makes an impact. Blomkamp’s gritty, violent style of filmmaking really brings home the brutality of the poverty divide, and doesn’t really allow you to entertain the fantasy of living with the privileged 1%. Obviously, everyone would prefer to live on Elysium rather than Earth, but the decadence and selfishness of the habitat is so realistically excessive that the thought of living there actually made me uncomfortable.

The plot is a bit buggy, but I’m willing to forgive that. I like the awkward relationship between humanity and machinery. And yes, Elysium is also a great action movie – I loved the fight scenes and the special effects. But it’s an action movie with substance and that raises it above its peers. The hero isn’t a sexy martial arts expert who delivers stunningly choreagraphed death in a way that makes hardship look cool – he’s an ex-car-thief in an exoskeleton who’s fighting because he’s going to die if he doesn’t, and suffers greatly all the way to Elysium. I think I like this movie more than District 9.

But there is one serious question I have to ask – why is the hero a white guy? Yes, I know Hollywood is biased in favour of the straight white western male, but in this case the bias looks ridiculous, and considering the racial overtones of the movie, it could have been better.

According to the plot, Earth has become a slum thanks to overpopulation, overconsumption, climate change, etc. The world’s wealthiest people have escaped to Elysium – a high-tech habitat in Earth’s orbit. Elysium is a paradise of mansions, pristine blue swimming pools, perfectly manicured lawns, and beautiful overdressed people. They have everything they could want, including healing pods that can cure any disease and fix any injury. Every home has one, and this technology is at the core of the plot and its attack on elitist healthcare policies. The rich can be instantly cured of absolutely anything; the poor will suffer and die because there aren’t any health pods on Earth.

Now, the movie is cast so that almost all the characters on Earth are POCs (people of colour) while everyone on Elysium is white (except for one Indian guy – President Patel. Yeah.) To put it in oversimplified terms, the privileged few are white, the oppressed masses are black.

The major exception is Matt Damon’s character, Max. Max grew up on Earth, a lone white orphan boy in a population that’s primarily Latino and black. He’s a fairly ordinary person, no more skilled than anyone around him. He lives a meagre existence and works in a factory that makes the robots for Earth and Elysium – the same robots that beat him up early in the movie for looking suspicious, and who would shoot him if he set foot on one of Elysium’s perfect lawns. He’s forced to be an agent of his own oppression, just like lots of other people. Max gets a lethal dose of radiation poisoning at work, forcing him to find a means of getting to Elysium where a health pod could cure him – a quest that becomes increasingly revolutionary. Lots of other people are in a similar situation. Lots of other people are criminals, like him, who have the contacts and skills to do what he does.

So why, once again, is it that a white man has to step in and save humanity? Especially when he’s almost the only white guy around? Have we not had enough of this shit? Watching the movie, I was reminded of this article on ‘Why film school teachers screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test’, and this quote in particular:

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.

And isn’t that exactly the case in Elysium? Why can’t the hero be black or Latino when the majority of society is? When every other character involved in the rebellion is a POC, why is it still that they can’t get actually achieve anything without Max, the white guy? If the hero was black, would the fight with Elysium look – to some people – less like justice and more like a barbarian invasion?

Just to be clear, I like Matt Damon and I enjoyed his performance. I just think the character should have been cast differently. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with his character being white, but when viewed in the context of an overwhelming bias in favour of white heroes, it’s a problem. Also, I know that it’s not impossible for this character to be white. Obviously there are still lots of white people on Earth – they’re not all rich enough to live on Elysium. The nun who helped raise Max and the factory manager are cases in point. And President Patel surely isn’t the only POC on Elysium. Rather, I’d say that the movie’s casting is a means of reflecting the fact that the wealthiest and most powerful people on Earth are mostly white, and the poorest and most disempowered are mostly non-white. As I mentioned before, the way this is done is simplistic, but not invalid.

The racial issue is emphasised by Sharlto Copley as Kruger, an Elysium special forces agent on Earth, tasked with things like shooting down ships full of people trying to go to Elysium. Based on Copley’s performances in District 9 and The A-Team, it seems he excels at playing crazy characters, and this time he makes a truly terrifying villain as an Afrikaner straight out of Apartheid-era South Africa. His penchant for violence, particularly violence against the oppressed, coupled with his strong Afrikaans accent, misogyny, overbearing demeanour, and use of racist terms like “boytjie” (meaning ‘little boy’ but used to refer to a black adult man) and “blackie”, holds a kind of deep-seated historical terror even for someone like myself, who was born when Apartheid was dying and enjoyed opportunities my parents were denied. Racism is still alive and well in SA, and contemporary versions of Kruger can easily be found in the more remote areas of our country. So on the one hand I grinned almost every time he used words like “kak” (pronounced “cuck”, meaning “shit”) or “lekker” (good, nice, but also a sweet/candy) or said something in a way that sounded particularly South African, because Afrikaans is part of my culture too and seeing South Africanisms in a big budget movie is a rare treat. And on the other hand, Kruger scared the shit out of me in the way that any crazy white supremacist would.

Perhaps Kruger’s significance is something best appreciated by other South Africans, but he really reinforces the underlying issue of a white/non-white power divide, while acting more explicitly as the guard dog of the wealth/class division. The fact that director/writer Neill Blomkamp is going so far as make a statement about racism with his casting choices and characters like Kruger, makes it that much more disappointing that Max’s character is white, whether that was Blomkamp’s decision or the studio’s requirement. A white hero and white villains, controlling the fates of POC victims who only play supporting roles.

Now that I’ve got that critique out of my system, I have to add that, although Elysium is guilty of bowing to Hollywood’s straight white western male bias, it’s a hell of a lot better than its peers that do the same. Because at least the issue is clearly on the table, and it’s giving you something to think about even if it’s making its point with a sledgehammer. Most of the time the bias just slides by as norm or as tradition and it’s easy to forget it’s there. I’m sure conservatives will be in an uproar about this movie because it makes statements about race, wealth and privilege that they would prefer not to hear. The one very positive thing I can say about casting Matt Damon as Max, is that at least no one can seriously argue that the movie is trying to say all white people are evil. Ok, no doubt some people will say that anyway (and even if Max were black that would be missing the point completely), but it helps to forestall that particular bit of close-mindedness with a strong counterargument. If the movie was more sophisticated it wouldn’t need to do that, but for a big-budget action movie it’s more progressive than what we could normally hope for.