District 9 poster

The unusually lengthy list of nominees for this year’s Best Picture Oscar features a slew of do-gooder films about the suffering of others. Most are about people who are at a considerable cultural distance from the white, middle-class Americans that are the primary consumers of these films.

Lee Daniel’s Precious transports us to Harlem, to the world of Precious Jones, an illiterate, obese and sexually abused black teenager. John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side — adapted from a biography of NFL superstar, Michael Oher — follows the troubled life of another overweight and undereducated dark-skinned teen. Loaded with racial allegory, the science fiction blockbusters up for Best Picture also promise insight into the plight of the culturally distant — segregated blacks under South Africa’s apartheid regime in Niall Blomkamp’s District 9, and aboriginal communities on the brink of colonization in James Cameron’s Avatar. One might add to this mix last year’s Best Picture winner, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which ventured into the sprawling slums of Mumbai to chronicle the journey of a young boy, Jamal Malik, as he navigated through a childhood ravaged by poverty and crime.

In each of these films, the audience is bombarded by a series of distressing images: shocking cruelty, violence, destitution and filth (who can forget the greasy pigs’ feet of Precious?). They are meant to be vehicles of social justice — stirring calls to action. Precious stands praised for its “inspiring message” and “glimpse inside a world we’d rather pretend does not exist in America,” Slumdog Millionaire for “entertain[ing] people into taking action for a compelling cause,” and Avatar for its anti-imperialist voice against “totalitarianism and genocide.” Many of Slumdog’s Oscars were dedicated to “the children,” and the child actors in the film – who are actually slum-dwellers — were paraded about in tuxedos and colourful frocks. I’m sure there’ll be an onslaught of righteous acceptance speeches at this year’s Oscars too.

But does it work? Does the moral outrage provoked by these beacons of cinematic philanthropy draw us closer to the Precious Joneses of the world, enlarging our understanding of their suffering? Or does it amplify distance, by reproducing stereotypes and erasing agency and history when they count? I’m going to bet on the latter.

Films such as Precious, District 9 and Avatar shed little light on how the “oppressed” in question would explain their own condition and articulate their own needs. What they render clear, however, is that familiar predatory relationships are very easily repackaged in the neutral language of altruism and multiculturalism.

At the heart of the problem is a parade of ugly stereotypes.

Slumdog and Precious serve up an unnervingly similar view of the spaces inhabited by the urban poor. The slum of Jamal’s childhood swarms with marauding religious fanatics, petty warlords and monstrous beggar-makers who gouge out children’s eyes. In the Harlem of Precious, we encounter idle men who kick the pregnant Precious to the ground, and her demonic family — a father who persistently rapes her, and a dissolute mother who blames her for soliciting his advances.

While it’s plausible that individuals such as Jamal and Precious do exist, having failed to experience one single moment of affirmation or achievement, the various snapshots of deprivation and debasement add up to a pornographically bleak picture of spaces such as Harlem, masking their vibrancy of life and the agency of their residents.

Mumbai’s slums and Harlem are far from desolate hinterlands. They have rich histories of community solidarity and local activism — social and political resources much beyond the purely individualistic sorts we see in the films. Both are sites of dynamic housing rights movements that have campaigned for decent housing for the poor and resisted the gentrification policies of their cities.

One wonders if it’s the politically engaged Harlemite that we’d rather pretend does not exist in America.

The denials of humanity and agency we see in Precious and Slumdog are not without consequence. They provide ideological justification to policy agendas that only deepen the misery of the poor. Viewing the “slum” as a worthless space mired in evil and decay only paves the way for involuntary relocation and demolition (on this, see my earlier review of Slumdog). The spectre of the sexually voracious, criminally fertile, welfare-cheating black mother of Precious has been used to restrict the access of single black mothers to federal poverty programs and subject them to forced sterilisation (on this, see Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s review of Precious).

The theme of pathological black motherhood also runs through The Blind Side (Oher’s “mama’s on the crack-pipe” and can’t remember who fathered him or how many children she’s had). In a particularly unsettling snatch of dialogue we’re told by Oher’s rich, white adoptive father that “Michael’s gift is his ability to forget.” Forget what exactly? His life of poverty, or his blackness?

Masquerading as films about “aliens,” Avatar and District 9 also repeat vicious stereotypes. In Avatar, the planet “Pandora” is the pristine home of the nature-loving noble savage who “wants nothing from us” and is oblivious to their perilous future. Once again, the objects of our benevolent gaze are seen as having passively invited their own alienation and despair — a patronizing portrayal that deflects attention from what earthly aboriginals do want from us, such as sharing in our rights as human beings.

District 9 doesn’t bother with the “noble savage” trope. Its aliens, who languish in a filthy, military-guarded slum in Johannesburg, are a repulsive and destructive horde. They lack all capacity for collective action, and as Nicole Stamp points out, “destroy property for no reason and piss on their homes.” Any notion that this is how actual black South Africans lived during the apartheid era is nothing short of outrageous. In fact, the unquenched racism of Blomkamp’s true view of black Africans is forced to light in his outlandish depiction of the cannibalistic “Nigerian” mercenaries that sexually service the aliens and sell them raw meat.

If the intention is to whip up sympathy for the aliens, this is an odd way of doing it. One can see why Johannesburgans want the aliens expelled to the outskirts of the city, with the barely-human “Nigerians” in tow. As with Slumdog Millionaire’s “slum,” the only reasonable solutions are containment or obliteration.

These films not only deny the sorts of agency that count politically, they deny history and context. The dysfunctional or mysterious life-worlds we enter appear to exist outside of social relations.

In Precious, the derelict Harlem of the 1980s is a spatially bound insular world, unconnected to practices such as the bank redlining of the 1970s, which left very few Harlem residents owning property, and increased the vulnerability of low-income families to the Giuliani administration’s privatization drive. The aliens in District 9’s internment camp aren’t the product of a long history of dispossession through land-grab, but have dropped down from a giant spaceship. Avatar’s “Pandora,” populated by the “indigenous Na’vi,” is at a convenient distance of “4.4 light years from earth.”

The suicidal choices we see — dietary and otherwise — are always framed as the cause of the problem, not the symptom.

One might argue that Avatar and District 9 are somewhat better at acknowledging systemic sources of poverty, and our complicity, as audiences in the West, in the tragedies that unfold. Yet the admission of guilt remains shallow. Both films rely on simplistic good vs. evil narratives that allow us to separate ourselves from greedy corporate heads and trigger-happy soldiers — the “bad white guys” — and stress our individuality and innate capacity for goodness.

Hollywood’s cinematic altruism ultimately serves an important function. They affirm us as wealthy, virtuous and lucky. They strengthen our sense of entitlement to intervene in the worlds of those we deem as impoverished, depraved and unlucky. And they harden our demand for gratitude.

It is surely significant that these films have attained enormous success at a time of acute economic crisis, and more importantly, the sputtering of numerous “just wars” against the culturally distant.

In each of these films, someone’s stuck in a wretched “other” culture who is bleating for a connection with ours — its values, knowledge and bodies — be this through an imported quiz show (Slumdog Millionaire), a light-skinned and supremely bourgeois teacher (Precious), affluent white Christians (The Blind Side), or fresh-faced white men suspended at different stages of Kafkaesque metamorphosis (District 9 and Avatar).

Indeed, these films are testaments to the insidious practice of pushing a few palatable local heroes of colour to the forefront to distract from endemic racism, material inequality and imperial design.

I realize that it’s futile to chastise commercial cinema for failing to explore complexities of class and race. I’m sure Hollywood will continue to appropriate the voice of those who lack the power to produce images of their own suffering.

My aim is not to beg for change (though that would be nice). It’s to offer such cinematic altruism as evidence that the camera is not a dispassionate instrument of sight, but one that reflects the relationship of power between those who’re being viewed and those who’re doing the viewing. The point extends not only to Hollywood’s philanthropic repertoire, but to other forms of filmic altruism, such as CNN’s unctuous dispatches from Haiti.

Mitu Sengupta is an assistant professor in the department of politics & public administration at Ryerson University in Toronto. A version of this article appeared in The Monthly Review.


Cathryn Atkinson

Cathryn Atkinson is the former News and Features Editor for rabble.ca. Her career spans more than 25 years in Canada and Britain, where she lived from 1988 to 2003. Cathryn has won five awards...