On the matter of blackness
in Under the Skin

by Lucas Hilderbrand

Blackness operates semantically, metaphorically, and theoretically across a number of registers:

In Jonathan Glaser’s 2014 film Under the Skin, blackness appears as a special visual effect, outside the photo-cinematic real. At moments in this film, images of what might be described as “total blackness” appear as both abstraction and figuration, so that “blackness” might mean promiscuously and differently in its distinct iterations: as the unknowable and as the alien/non-human, respectively—though at a couple moments the figure and ground become almost indecipherable. Blackness itself comes to seem unreal in this film.

This film has primarily been understood to pose an inquiry into what it means to be human from the speculative point of view of an alien (played by Scarlett Johansson), and it thus presents an ontological dilemma, one explored through formalist cinematic techniques. As Frantz Fanon has influentially asserted, ontology (at least in the classic sense of continental philosophy) “does not permit us to understand the being of the black man” in part because of the ways the black man, subject to histories of slavery and colonialism (and subsequent legacies of incarceration and violence), has not been historically recognized as human by the white man.[3] Thus, as Fred Moten suggests, building from Fanon, black life “demands a para-ontological disruption.”[4] Under the Skin seems so challenging and intriguing a film precisely because it ruptures our conceptions of both personhood and familiar modes of cinematic subjectivity. The film also raises certain questions: If the film itself undertakes an alien perspective, would race still appear as an intelligible and defining framework of human difference within its logics? Is it even possible to conceive and create a film outside of an human perspective and, by extension, outside of a racializing worldview? Of course, the titular word Skin only serves to reinforce the epidermal readings of chromatic motifs in the film.[5]

In his astute recent book Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, André M. Carrington seeks to move beyond “long-standing tendencies to invoke race in metaphorical terms.”[5b] Carrington calls for us to recognize the overrepresentation of whiteness of science fiction—both its creators and the bodies of its characters—and the ways that such pervasive whiteness normalizes whiteness in ways that repeatedly render black people as minorities and that reproduce alienation, even for black fans. In contrast to science fiction, Carrington advances speculative fiction as a productive set of sites for black bodies and blackness—particularly through such frameworks as Afrofuturism, surrealism, Otherhood, and haunting. Indeed, both the normalizing whiteness of science fiction and the provocative reimagining of speculative blackness appear to converge uncomfortably and perhaps incoherently in Under the Skin. The central character’s whiteness is what allows her to pass as normatively human in the narrative; with the film’s denouement, her blackness serves as a confounding rupture and effectively destabilizes what little about the film seemed familiar up until that point. Blackness in this film counters our taken-for-granted assumptions about the world and about the human.

Specifically, and despite Carrington's intervention, it’s the visual metaphors of blackness that I want to think through here as they appear in the film. Under the Skin tests these limits, and my initial attraction to the film was that I had simply never seen anything like it. In other words, I was fascinated by its play with and refusal of conventions of cinematic narrative and representations, rather than its generic status as a science fiction art film. In spring 2014, when I was teaching my program’s core visual studies graduate seminar, a number of my students from different departments and disciplines were interested in thinking through “blackness” via different frameworks—from racial and epidermal blackness to afro-pessimism and anti-blackness to the opacity and illicitness of black boxes, black ops, and black markets. The students challenged me to think through this concept more capaciously. [5c] I first saw Under the Skin during the same term, and my mind kept going to the film in our various discussions. On the one hand, I was interested in pushing myself to read a dynamic and continuing body of scholarship in critical race theory (particularly beyond queer of color critique scholarship,[6] with which I was more familiar).

But I was also concerned: in my associative thinking about Under the Skin, was I being overly literal? Was I projecting metaphor onto a literal blackness? I have also wrestled with the potentially problematic premise of looking to a film by a white Scottish director featuring a white American star to explore “blackness,” and I am mindful of the dangers of appropriating radical black thought to reaffirm whiteness. This is decidedly not my objective.[7] Although this film might not be “about race,” it also cannot not be about race. By thinking about this film through the lens of blackness, I have had to recognize and grapple with the fact that—perhaps not unlike its alien character that never fully comprehends human subjectivity—as a racially white person, I can read critical race theory and can try to live an ethics informed by it, but I can never actually know the experience of black personhood in an anti-black culture. I do not intend depoliticize theories of blackness but rather to use this film to see “blackness” at the core of any rigorous thinking-through of the human.

To be precise, we must also remember that this is a British text, and that “black” does not necessarily mean African American or the history of chattel slavery to the degree that it does in the United States. Rather, in the U.K., “black” has operated as the other of “British”—as the term for the “foreigner” or “alien” (emphasis added) that doesn’t differentiate precise ethnicities.[8] Or, as Stuart Hall has explained,

“the term ‘black’ was coined as a way of referencing the common experience of racism and marginalization in Britain and came to provide an organizing category of a new politics of resistance, among groups and communities with, in fact, very different histories, traditions, and ethnic identities.”[9]

In this conception, blackness speaks of the common experience of alienation within society: it becomes a strategic political metaphor for self-definition and communal identity. It asserts humanness through difference.[10] In U.S. critical race studies, blackness has been theorized to connote social and political death,[11] though the recent political slogan “Black Lives Matter”[12] has reclaimed the vitality and significance of African American existence and called renewed attention to the specificity of anti-black violence and persecution.

I recognize a potential contradiction in my thinking—one that exists in the film—between metaphoric and literal figurations of blackness. Ultimately, the blackness of Under the Skin is an alien blackness; it indicates that which is not-quite human and that which we cannot fathom. Through its inscrutable alien narration and promiscuous metaphors, the film enacts a project of making-strange the human.

The novel from which the film was adapted is easily legible as a narrative of colonialism in which aliens inhabit the U.K. in order to exploit its natural resources: human flesh. That this colonial narrative reverses a history of British colonialism makes this science fiction book all the more compelling in its speculative future. The novel is narrated from a flatly omniscient perspective, and although the alien’s (named Isserley) routine does not initially make sense, everything is eventually explained to the reader. The source novel reflects its genre: the novel is a literary form understood to express human interiority and psychological realism.

The film jettisons nearly all of the source novel’s plot details, motivation, interiority, allegorical content, and even the characters’ names. The film never offers explanation or accrued clarity for the alien’s actions and motivations, only opacity upon which we might make projections or guesses. We never know where the plot is going, and we never really understand the alien’s logic. Counter to conventional narrative cinema, this film operates through a formalist logic of disorientation: The narrative frustrates rather than offers intelligibility or character motivation. The minimal dialogue in the film is small talk, most of which is unintelligibly muffled or spoken through a thick Scottish accent. Human communication seems essentially irrelevant to the alien and does little to offer exposition or give access to character interiority.

Formally, the film presents stark distinctions between cinema verité-style shots of the human world that appear grounded in familiar realist codes and interior shots of the alien’s more subjective interior environments that seem to defy representational space. The transitions between these modes of mise-en-scene create a jarring cognitive dissonance that may resemble the alien’s own disorientation. It does this, seemingly, in service of a film pondering what it means to be human. But it also works to structurally frustrate identification with the film’s protagonist, repeatedly keeping her a seeming other, even when we are positioned to see her stare back in the mirror. [13]

Although the novel makes the claim that we are “all the same under the skin,”[14] the film would seem to offer a counter claim. The film, in excising backstory, motivation, and exposition, effectively replaces the narrative of colonialism with a visual trope of blackness. To put it more pointedly: the blackness that so vividly marks the screen is entirely an invention for this film rather than an element that has been adapted. This formal choice becomes all the more stark when we recognize its contrast to the film’s spaces of whiteness: visually, in an early scene, the film places the process of taking on the accouterments of humanness in abstracted white spaces, whereas dehumanization is coded through blackness.[15]

To a take a verbal rather than visual chromatic metaphor, the Johansson alien and her male motorcycle-driving manager enact a series of “black ops” to entrap and eviscerate straight white men.[16] Early in the film, the Johansson alien strips an unconscious white human woman to steal clothes and dress herself. This sequence takes place within an abstract white space, a backlit environment that renders the image more difficult to see. The alien body appears in near silhouette, and her predatory strangeness is signaled by her fascination with an ant; the alien appears to feel more recognition with the insect than with the violated woman laid out on the floor.

Whiteness presents the mise-en-scène of taking on human appearance. The protagonist is more interested in—perhaps empathic toward—an ant than the woman she has just violated.