Originally published: April, 2008
Racist imagery in RE5 trailer?Posted: 2008-04-13 15:18:46.257
Message board reactions to Newsweek blogger N'Gai Croal's thoughts on Resident Evil 5's controversial trailer miss much of the point.
To say that previously released Resident Evil games featured rabid mobs of Spaniards and Americans of mixed ethnicity simply won't do. To many Americans, an animalistic, homicidal white man is an anomaly, and an animalistic, homicidal black man is a recognizable "type" with historical and institutional precedent. This is what Croal refers to when he says "the imagery is not the same. It doesn't carry the same history, doesn't carry the same weight." Some discussion of the taxonomy of stereotypical, racially insensitive, and/or outright racist imagery of blacks -- such as revolting notions of sambos, minstrels, and savages, as well as the spiritual and moral mentors to non-black figures who feature in many Hollywood movies -- might have preempted much of the reactionary posting that is appearing online. However, I understand that it is not the Newsweek writer's obligation to provide crash courses in black history for an American audience that ought to know better.
Imagine a series of tycoon games in which the object is to control a state's banking and financial institutions and then exercise increasingly powerful political lobbying power. The first game in the series features white characters. Its sequel, however, focuses on corporate fat cats with stereotypical Jewish features. The same entrepreneurship lionized in American culture as the embodiment of by-their-bootstraps success is something else entirely for the stereotyped Jewish character because of historical context and because the same socially constructed categories have been used to oppress and separate Jews from people of other ethnicities. As it retells an age-old story, the game of Jewish tycoons perpetuates notions that have been used in part as justification for the expulsion and extermination of Jews across Europe from 15th century Spain and Portugal to 20th century Germany, Poland, and Russia.
No matter how academic this might sound, all Americans are familiar with the concept. We know that is it different to use a racist, sexist, or homophobic epithet against a person of an ethnicity, gender, or sexuality who the term was never intended to slander, than it is to use the same word to attack another person of the ethnicity, gender, or sexuality that it is intended to wound. Resident Evil 5's trailer is no racist slur-- the point I'm attempting to make is the all-importance of context to meaning.
Unlike Croal, I am not yet convinced that the trailer depicts non-zombie blacks as "all dangerous men, women, and children" who "have to be killed." But I do believe that its imagery does invoke, if not directly draw on, our familiarity with and interest in films like Black Hawk Down, as well as the real world tragedies in Sudan's Darfur region and Rwanda (where black Hutus have in fact murdered perhaps as many as a million black Tutsis and moderate Hutus, often with knives and machetes). The potential problem is that while action games are perfectly able to adapt some of the intensity and chaos of these situations to the purposes of interactive entertainment, they're miserable at handling complicated social, political, and historical contexts. (Similarly, where Black Hawk Down succeeds as an action movie, several critics accuse it of shortchanging the socio-politics of the Battle of Mogadishu.)
At the moment, neither Croal nor I have any idea as to how Resident Evil 5 will handle its suggestive themes. We aren't sure whether it will in some way acknowledge the terrible baggage attached to the real atrocities that lend its scenes such emotional power or simply mine these as videogame thrillmakers. Beyond this specific game, there exists the danger that -- over time, and across multiple iterations -- well-meaning pop culture creations will distill the specific and complex character of conflicts such as Darfur's into the general and simplistic trope of a malicious black mob armed with machetes.
I say well-meaning, because in the case of videogames, current technical limitations restrict the extent to which a developer can paint complete pictures. For instance, it is both easier and more cost effective to render convincing opponents in games like Resident Evil or Call of Duty than it is to breathe believable life into non-combatant characters who go about the business of day-to-day living. This is one reason why we find no NPCs in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's middle-eastern cities, even as the game's missions lead players through the very homes and workplaces of vanished people. And should Infinity Ward have decided to populate its levels with anyone other than armed militants it would have faced the challenge of preventing players from shooting innocents -- a circumstance undoubtedly closer to life, but one that would have risked depicting American and British soldiers as war criminals, as well as forcing players to restart missions after each incident of indiscriminate fire. The trade-off, of course, is that COD 4's unnamed Saudi Arabia is inhabited exclusively by angry Arab gunmen.
While I would be surprised if RE5 does not include a few black NPCs who fill sympathetic supporting roles fleshed out in non-interactive cutscenes, I'm not counting on in-game villagers to flee their zombified and cannibalistic former neighbors.