by Robert Barringer
Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 13-15, 118
Observations and criticism of the urban dystopia in Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER have focused on its borrowings from film noir, detective fiction, and previous filmic visions of an urban future.[open notes in new window] Much has been made of the city's ethnic diversity (encompassing Asians, Latinos, Arabs, and various non-ethnically marked whites) and its connections to an increasingly outnumbered and threatened white minority. From the film's opening scenes, it establishes ethnic syncretisms; for example, in the way that Deckard describes Gaff's language as "gibberish…city-speak. Gutter talk. A mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what-have-you." To a white viewer, the syncretism may appear both exotic (on screen) and undesirably Other and heterogeneous (in real life). Clearly, the dangerous, dark city dominated by nonwhites and both crowded (at street level) and desolate (in Sebastian's apartment building) marks a middle/ upper-class white nightmare, from which those who are able have fled to "a better life" in the off-world colonies. We never see "the better life," but the film's foregrounding of crime, filthy streets, near-constant darkness and rain suggests that the colonies are safe, clean, sunny, and predominantly white. The colonies seem just the latest suburban location for white flight.
From a racial perspective, however, the most interesting aspect of the city is the near-complete absence of blacks: with the exception of two black females at Taffey Lewis' bar, Los Angeles seems entirely emptied of African Americans, or indeed anyone of African descent. From a textual perspective, two possibilities seem plausible: either African Americans have joined the white exodus to the off-world colonies or they have been exterminated. The former is unlikely in light of chronic economic discrimination and ghettoization, and the latter too horrifying to contemplate, though the darkness and despair at the film's heart would not preclude such a genocidal backstory. In any case, given the film's numerous street and crowd scenes (connotatively important to convey the city's varied ethnic makeup), the racial vacuum in the midst of an otherwise diverse population seems an intentional directorial choice. Though the film never explicitly deals with the absence of blacks, among other things it is a film about slavery. Whether African Americans have attained economic power and moved off-world or have been eliminated by a fearful white government, they are no longer available to fill the social and economic functions assigned them. Industrial societies need workers to do unpleasant jobs, and in the absence of a cheap (black) labor force, the film's industrial society has created a new artificial racial underclass: replicants.
Given the history of slavery in the United States, any new race of U.S. slaves would be immediately comparable to African American slaves on the basis of forced labor alone. BLADE RUNNER goes further, using cultural stereotypes to code the replicants as black, and the humans as white. A close reading of the film shows a remarkably consistent pattern of racial coding that makes BLADE RUNNER an important and powerful commentary on U.S. race relations.
The first time we hear of the replicants, the racist police captain Bryant calls them "skinjobs." In the voice-over narration, Deckard explains the term and describes Bryant as "the kind of cop who used to call black men niggers." Thus, from the beginning the replicants are explicitly compared to blacks, at least in how racists see them. Throughout, even sympathetic humans treat replicants like property, valuing them even less than animals: most of the questions on the Voight-Kampff test are designed to elicit empathy for animals, not people. "Replicants are like any other machine," Deckard tells Rachael. "They're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem." Later, Deckard tells Rachael the spider story (an event from her programmed "memory" which she had assumed to be real) as if he's reprogramming a faulty computer, not expecting any emotional response from a machine. When the machines behave incorrectly, they are "retired" without a thought for their potential humanity. Ironically, replicants built to be "more human than human" in theory are considered far less than human in practice. The racial parallels are obvious, from the legal designation of slaves as 3/5 of a person to the car crash scene in Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, in which someone asks "Was anybody hurt?" "No," the answer comes. "Nigger got killed."
A slave system must have masters, and BLADE RUNNER features two: Tyrell and Sebastian. Though Tyrell is a "bad massa" and Sebastian a "good massa," the inherent inequality of master/slave power relations forces both to treat replicants as things. Of course, the film puts an added twist on the relation by making Tyrell and Sebastian not only masters but also their slaves' creators, paradoxically increasing the closeness they feel to their creations while reinforcing the creator's distance: if I made it, it must be a thing. Tyrell, the "god of biomechanics" (conflating religion and science) boasts that he cares only for commerce, forcing his creations to do dangerous and undesirable work. Sebastian, on the other hand, literally "makes friends" with his slaves, yet he constructs them as inferior physically and mentally to him. Though Sebastian is a sympathetic character, his loneliness, innocence, and kindness mitigate but do not excuse his participation in the slave system and his treatment of his slaves as objects. When he discovers that Roy and Pris are replicants, he asks not, "Let me understand you," but rather, "Show me something." To Sebastian, these two replicants are only an interesting application of genetic design and engineering. Roy can barely mask his anger and contempt when he first enters Sebastian's apartment, saying, "Boy, you've got some nice toys here." Batty sees them for what they are: inferior models of himself; they could have been as smart and strong as he is if engineered differently. Though Sebastian does not consciously realize it, his "friends" are nothing more than mobile ornamentation, 21st century lawn jockeys. Roy kills Sebastian both because the replicant's overflowing rage is not sated by Tyrell's murder and because Sebastian is complicit in the system which demands that replicants slave and die.
Despite parallels between the treatment of replicants and of African Americans, it could be argued that any slave system will have characteristics similar to all other slave systems and that the replicants do not necessarily correspond to U.S. black slaves in particular. Leaving aside the fact that BLADE RUNNER is an U.S. film set in an U.S. city, thus making U.S. themes and history its most likely cultural antecedents, the replicants exhibit behaviors and attributes specifically coded black. As a group, they are both physically and sensually/sexually superior to human beings, fictional traits that tie in perfectly with the national mythology of the oversexed, physically "gifted" black.
Furthermore, each individual replicant fits loosely a particular black substereotype. Leon, a nuclear fission loader, corresponds to the marginally-skilled industrial worker, whose historical antecedent is a field hand (unemployed, he's a street thug). Somewhat stupid (his mental level is "C," lower than any of the others) and prone to sudden violence, he represents for the popular imagination the rage of the undereducated black male. Further indicative of Leon's blackness is that he snaps when Holden asks him about his mother: neither blade runner Holden (because he is white) nor Leon himself (because he has "grown up" without understanding the racial tradition he belongs to) know how to play the dozens.
Zhora is a prostitute retrained as an assassin, who then hides on Earth as an entertainer, working as a stripper at Taffey Lewis's sleazy club. Pris, a "standard pleasure model," is also a prostitute, and she dresses like it to ensnare Sebastian: dog collar, heavy makeup, and fur coat over a miniskirt and fishnet stockings. Roy is the smart, militant leader, following in the tradition of John Brown and Malcolm X. Finally, Rachael is an "Oreo," successful at pretending to be white/human because she has been manufactured to believe she is. All are specific black types present in the popular U.S. media and imagination for at least the last century.
Because the replicants are made white-skinned, they have fewer problems "passing" than they would if they had been designed as black, hence the necessity of the Voight/ Kampff test. As might be expected from a fugitive slave movie, though, BLADE RUNNER has many scenes where passing is a subtext. Both Voight/Kampff interviews figure prominently; most important passing gives Rachael a context for questioning the test's efficacy on humans. Chew and Sebastian both see through the replicants' actions, with Sebastian commenting, "You're so different. You're so perfect." Leon tries to pass as human to infiltrate the Tyrell corporation, and in the climactic scene Pris acts as one of Sebastian's toys (an obedient slave) to hide from Deckard. Like any oppressed minority, the replicants find it easier to pass and pretend, though unlike most African Americans, the replicants have a choice.
Of course, for any racial coding to exist, it must have a counterpart, usually in the form of a binary. In other words, blackness must set itself in contrast to whiteness and vice-versa. The replicants cannot be coded black without the humans being coded white. As Richard Dyer points out, whiteness remains hard to identify precisely because its power depends on "seeming not to be anything in particular." A logical corollary to white lack of particularity must then be "emptiness, absence, denial, or even a kind of death" (141), qualities that fit BLADE RUNNER's human beings exactly. In contrast to the replicants' sinuous vitality, Holden acts in a businesslike way, Bryant coldly and cynically, and Sebastian timidly. Tyrell is calculating and manipulative, gauntly fastidious and completely asexual. And when Deckard introduces himself via narration, he reports that his ex-wife's nickname for him is "sushi-cold fish."
Whiteness is thus represented as "order, rationality, [and] rigidity," and as a quality, it comes out only in relation to black/replicant "disorder, irrationality, and looseness" (Dyer 145). One of the film's many ironies is that Deckard, the cold fish, hunts people who aren't human enough; yet the hunted are truly alive in a way the human characters cannot approach. In the chess game Sebastian and Tyrell play, Batty takes a risk which Sebastian will not and thus wins the game, allowing him access to Tyrell's inner sanctum. In the subsequent confrontation between creator and created, Roy sweats and breathes heavily while Tyrell is calm and controlled like a machine, at least until the moment Roy kills him. Later in the climactic chase scene, Batty howls in sorrow for his dead companions, then clowns playfully, toying with Deckard in a way that would be unimaginable for the blade runner. Roy's instructions to Deckard take the form of clichés, mocking Deckard's laconic manner, but Roy's words are polysemic and multilayered in contrast to Deckard's flat, reportorial style. "If you don't play," Batty tells him, "you can't win," and later he commands Deckard, "Show me what you're made of." The replicant seems to challenge the human to prove his humanity, to show emotion, to take risks and truly to come alive by living in fear. "That's what it is to be a slave," Batty tells him.
Batty's instructions to Deckard form the last stage of the teaching process begun by Rachael: by the end of the film Deckard has accepted the replicants as human and become more human himself in the process. His border-crossing parallels both Roy's (who becomes more emotional as the odds against Roy and his fellow escapees get longer) and Rachel's, who is as cold and controlled as any of the humans until she finds out she isn't what she thought she was. Her switch from white to black, human to replicant, is cinematically coded by her hairstyle, which remains fixed in a tight bun until she accepts her replicant status and lets her hair fall naturally.
Significantly, both Deckard and Rachael have not only emotional but sexual awakenings. Just as Deckard should not feel pity when "retiring" replicants (but does), he should not fall in love with one. Although Rachael is played by Sean Young, a white actress, her pairing with Harrison Ford's Deckard is coded as interracially taboo. In its casting, the film resembles most previous interracial Hollywood romances, which almost always featured white actresses playing Asians, Arabs, and Latinas. However, in this film the white male protagonist, Deckard, changes his thinking to assimilate to the racialized female Other instead of vice-versa. Since Deckard functions as the audience's main source of identification and point of entry into the film, the audience is encouraged to change its understanding with him, accepting the replicants as truly human.
Like most Hollywood films, BLADE RUNNER elides ethnicity even as it seems to deal specifically with it. It is typical that when directors do not want to wrestle with race, they "escape" the issue by making all the characters white and thus visibly unmarked. I do not believe that this was the case with BLADE RUNNER. Undoubtedly Hollywood economics led to casting all white actors as the replicants, but the same argument cannot explain the absence of black faces in crowd scenes. This is a film about slavery in which the slaves are coded black, a film which flaunts its vision of a multi-ethnic metropolis, shot in Los Angeles where there is no shortage of African American actors or indeed actors of any ethnicity. The replicants, we must conclude, function as replacements for blacks, whose absence (by whatever means, fair or foul) has made it economically desirable and politically feasible to construct a new race of slaves. Only this time, the technocrats think, we'll get it right: we'll program them with a four-year life span to keep them from getting uppity. Even better, we'll make them white.
Replicants are the bastards of the white world, their powerful bodies and minds perversely designed to fulfill white fears of/desires for blacks. We might think of replicants as a screen upon which white fears and desires are projected, reproduced in flesh "more human than human." Replace "human" in that sentence with "nigger," and the genetic designers' intentions become clear. Unsurprisingly, a fearful white technocracy constructs its new race of slaves "better," meaning white-skinned and blonde. Thus, though Scott's casting decisions probably made his film more palatable to the white majority audience, it paradoxically also makes BLADE RUNNER more racially complex and subversive.
1. Both Gray and Carper focus on the detective/film noir angle, while Desser compares BLADE RUNNER to, among others, METROPOLIS, THINGS TO COME, and SOYLENT GREEN.
2. Though positing "the white viewer" is problematic, the film clearly plays on white guilt, fears, and desires.
3. Barr makes reference to the mechanisms of racism in the film, but focuses on "speciesism" as an alternative to racism.
4. Philip K. Dick's Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said posits a future in which African Americans have been involuntarily sterilized and/or limited by law to one child per couple. The decrease in the U.S. black population makes them unthreatening curiosities in the popular imagination, as Native Americans are now. Though he doesn't suggest such government intervention in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, clearly Dick had thought about the form an American "final solution" might take.
5. Though most critics prefer the director's cut, which deletes Deckard's noir-homage narration, I make no distinction between the versions for the purposes of this paper. One reason the studio insisted on the narration in the original release was to clarify the action, clarification Scott thought was unnecessary. Nevertheless, the narration was added, but only to explain what was already there — hence my willingness to use it.
6. And, as Barr points out, the original Dick story includes the "murder" of a goat, a scene which brings a greater emotional response from both Deckard and the readers than any "retirement" of a replicant (Barr 25).
7. The master-as-creator trope also resonates with the historical conditions of U.S. slavery, in which many of the master's slaves were also his children.
8. Tyrell's frosty asexuality does not preclude his coding as gay. His meticulous dress and rococo art-filled apartment are pitched halfway between expensive taste and camp. Also, he flutters his fingers effeminately when he asks Deckard how many questions it normally takes to identify a replicant. Tyrell fits in a long tradition of gay representations in film noir, like Cairo in THE MALTESE FALCON, Lindsay in FAREWELL MY LOVELY, and Brandon and Philip in ROPE (Dyer, "Homosexuality and Film Noir" 60). In BLADE RUNNER Tyrell' s gayness functions to provide another level of complexity in regard to the replicants: if he is gay, he cannot procreate but he can manufacture, with deadly results for him. Batty kills him after sharing an incestuous/homoerotic kiss, making sure Tyrell can manufacture no more.
9. Shohat and Stam's Unthinking Eurocentrism provides excellent commentary on film miscegenation and assimilation. See especially "Erotic Allegories" (23031) and "Rape and the Rescue Fantasy" (156-161).
Barr, Marleen. "Metahuman 'Kipple' Or, Do Male Movie Makers Dream of Electric Women? Speciesism and Sexism in BLADE RUNNER." Kerman 25-36.
Carper, Steve. "Subverting the Disaffected City: Cityscape in BLADE RUNNER." Kerman 185-195.
Desser, David. "Race, Space, and Class: The Politics of the SF Film from Metropolis to BLADE RUNNER. Kerman 110-113.
Dyer, Richard. The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation. London: Routledge, 1993.
Gray, W. Russel. "Entropy, Energy, Empathy: BLADE RUNNER and Detective Fiction." Kerman 66-75.
Kerman, Judith B., ed. Retrofitting BLADE RUNNER. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green UP, 1991.
Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London: Routledge, 1994.