Criminal Minds: “The Last Word”

(Season 2, Episode 9 | November 15 2006)

The 2006 Criminal Minds episode “The Last Word” examines the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) in pursuit of two serial killers in St. Louis, one who targets suburban white women, the other targeting working class sex workers, who are mostly white in this telling. The episode aims to contrast how these two victim groups are differently treated by the press, local police and society and how it is up to gun-slinging door-breaking ass-kicking psychologists working for FBI to right these wrongs through catching the serial killers. It fails to do so meaningfully mostly due to an inability for an institution that marginalizes a population to reflect on the violence of that marginalization.

The loving couple

The loving parents of white heterosexual normativity

The episode has three opening segments, two relevant for this essay plus the introduction of a new main cast member. The relevant two both introduce a serial killer and victim. The first is a loving white heterosexual couple and their appreciated child playing in a public park in when the wife is abducted by the Mill Creek Killer. The second opens in a dirty apartment with a young child rousting his white impoverished sex worker mom after 10pm to go to work, obviously disappointed in his mother and her, the audience is to understand, empty promises. The young child is scolding his mother. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asks. “Why don’t you get an alarm clock,” the child replies. She is then killed by the Hollow Man in a grimy city alley.

The sex worker and the shadowy killer

The irresponsible parent, deemed responsible only for the harm that comes to her

In discussing the Hollow Man prior to arriving in St. Louis, BAU team member JJ says, “No one even knew this guy existed until he sent this letter,” informing a local journalist he was responsible for murdering six sex workers. Team leader Agent Hotchner compares this to the coverage of the Mill Creek Killer saying, “Well he’s killed more victims but look who he’s chosen. Hundreds of victims go unnoticed because they’re social outcasts and never make the front page.” Upon arrival in St. Louis JJ meets with the local reporter the Hollow Man has been communicating with. He asks JJ:

“So did the Hollow Man shoot those prostitutes because I wrote about the Mill Creek victims?”

“He would’ve killed them anyway. But right now he’s looking for recognition, that’s why he’s contacted you. […] We’re gonna ask that you not print anything about the Hollow Man or the women he’s killed.” 

“Don’t those victims deserve just as much ink as those others victims?”

“Of course they do. But we need the shooter to keep communicating with you. And if you satisfy his need for attention he may disappear and I’m sorry we just can’t take that chance.”

Hotchner and Reid visit the sex worker murdered in the opening segment’s mother, finding her drinking, stressed, and caring for her grandchildren. She tells them, “You wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them,” referring to the wealthy suburban victims of the Mill Creek Killer. “No one writes about prostitutes being shot, because they won’t admit they think they’re cleaning up the place.” Hotchner replies, “You’re right. Cases like your daughter’s usually go unsolved. The problem is people aren’t looking for them because they don’t know they’re missing. Part of her job was to stay below the radar.” This brings mum over to Hocthner’s side saying, “She made bad choices, but she was a good person.”

As per the series rule, the BAU catches both the killers and accountability for their misogynist violence is achieved through the carceral state.

Best I know, the episode, like most Criminal Minds episodes, is silly from an investigatory standpoint and for sure is from a psychology standpoint. As example, Reid gives a staunch defense of the pseudoscience graphology in a throwaway scene. Though silly it is reasonably well written, paced and acted with Mandy Pantinkin especially giving his usual fine performance and Jason O’Mara being good and creepy in his brief scenes as the Mill Creek Killer.

the classified ad

At one point Reid says that the bratty juvenile novel Catcher in the Rye “is a widely accepted as a love book of sociopaths”….which is true if ‘sociopath’ is naturalized with ‘white’ lol

All Criminal Minds episodes are violent in the sense they lionize the carceral state and are premised on an ableist framework of criminalizing and pathologizing neuroatypicality. In pathologizing neuratypicality it, like so much of the franchise, naturalizes the misogyny underlying the killers’ actions by leaving it entirely unspoken. That both killers target exclusively women isn’t even mentioned. It does this while imagining mentally ill people as violent actors rather than the truth of people more likely to have violence enacted upon them. Alternately put, in the Criminal Minds franchises, misogynist violence is normal and unremarkable but neauroatypicality is itself dangerous and predatory.

In “The Last Word” this has an extra level of carcerality specifically targeting sex workers. When Hotchner says, “Hundreds of victims go unnoticed because they’re social outcasts,” he offers no reflection that the FBI is an agency that does the casting out he laments. In talking to the first sex worker’s mother Hotchner says, “Cases like your daughter’s usually go unsolved. The problem is people aren’t looking for them because they don’t know they’re missing. Part of her job was to stay below the radar,” without reflecting that it is his radar she had to stay under. That his radar is appropriate and virtuous is a given in the story’s context. When her mother said, “She made some bad choices” it both affirms her criminality and shifts the blame of her marginalization from her marginalizer, the patriarchal carceral state, to her. The only evidence of “bad choices” is an unspoken understanding that the audience is supposed to bring to the table, that she was a sex worker. The audience has to already understand this in order for the dialogue to make sense. It’s another example of how shows tell us as much about the audience as they do the writers.

This theme of the outcasting institution lamenting the perils of being cast out is a defining part of Criminal Minds and most police procedurals more broadly. Throughout all three Criminal Minds shows this is usually phrased as “low-risk” or “high-risk” victims. The high-risk, in the show, are those who present a high risk for the predator, not for whom the risk is high themselves (the show sometimes reverses this because the in canon writing is mediocre). Low-risk are those who murder presents little threat to the killers. The “low risk” represents the carceral state’s marginalization of certain populations and its subjection of them to violence similar to that of the non-state predators, as with sex workers in “The Last Word”. The are low-risk for the predators because they are simply joining the violence the state and patriarchy already enact.

This gets to part of the misogyny underlying carceral feminism and sex work abolition: the patriarchal carceral state is incapable of protecting its own outcasts nor recognizing its role in that marginalization even as it can define which populations are marginalized and how that marginalization makes those populations vulnerable in the first place. This dynamic is also why the current decriminalization efforts sex workers are fighter for are so vital. Actual decriminalization means that part of sex workers’ labor would no longer be staying under Agent Hotchner’s radar, at least in the sex work aspect of their lives.

Even adjusting for those limitations the story still fails at a fundamental level. The sex workers the Hollow Man kills mostly work outdoors and mostly are very impoverished. In St. Louis like most large US cities this means they are predominantly Black. That isn’t the case “The Last Word” presents. This is similar to the 2009 episode “To Hell… and Back” that presents the working class addict and sex worker population of Detroit, a city at the time nearly 85% Black, as largely white even as the episode’s guest star is Black. And leaving out this racialized dynamic also leaves out the limits of the potential decriminalization efforts. As some Black sex workers have pointed out, while decriminalization is an unambiguous good in that it removes an entire action node of criminalization from the carceral state, it doesn’t do address how Black people are criminalized en masse no matter their job. Decriminalizing sex work does not decriminalize the Blackness of Black sex workers. Support especially @thotscholar’s work for more on this. 

In the end on the plane ride home the BAU passes around a fax of the local paper’s lead story naming all of the Hollow Man’s sex worker victims. Each team member has a quick look and makes a reflection. Here then the outcasting institution gives validation to their own work in limiting the violence against sex workers to that which they themselves carry out. It’s a clear exemplar of the Weberian state’s claim to a monopoly on legitimate violence. The state’s violence against sex workers is legitimate. The serial killer’s is not. Violence against sex workers is no problem in this story, only the perpetrator’s non-state position is. 

“The Last Word” had 16.48 million US viewers in its initial showing, around 1 in 20 of the U.S. population. It didn’t invent any of the problems it exemplifies nor narrates but, in concert with its audience and those it purports to portray, it faithfully (re)produces whorephobia and misogyny along with the franchise’s baselines of anti-Blackness and ableism.

 

 

To support abolitionist work connect with Critical Resistance, Project Nia and other abolitionist groups. To support sex work decriminalization work connect with your local SWOP chapter or other local sex worker-led organizing efforts like the Las Vegas Sex Workers Collective.

Every possible story but the true one

This essay is greatly informed by analytical and ethical frameworks developed by Christina Sharpe, Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Che Gossett and others along with Marcus Rediker’s historical research even where not directly cited though they cannot be blamed for my failings. Should you find this essay engaging please uplift their works, the directly influential ones being listed at the bottom. Special thanks to Megan Spencer for their valuable feedback on the draft and to both Megan again and Zoé Samudzi for being thought partners on the ideas while writing. I try to avoid detailing anti-Black violence yet found no way to escape implying or vaguely describing some easily imaginable and horrible scenarios so a HUGE CONTENT WARNING FOR ANTI-BLACK VIOLENCE AND AFRICAN SLAVERY is in order. Feedback whether constructive, destructive or other always welcomed.

 

The 2018 box office hit The Meg proved that the shark attack film remains a staple of the nature horror genre. The Meg has already a sequel in development and spawned a knockoff in the same year, Megalodon. These focus on groups of people under threat from one or many charcharocles megalodon sharks, a species extinct for over two million years that grew to over fifty feet long. Others in the genre look at contemporary species like great white and bull sharks, lab-created super genius sharks, sharks in unexpected places like the under sand or in Australian supermarkets, shark-cephalopod hybrids, sharks using storms to migrate and hunt, sharks from beyond the grave and more. It seems just about every possible and a great many more impossible stories of sharks eating people has been told in nature horror, except for the one time that people were regularly, dependably, for a long period eaten by sharks: the Middle Passage.

Most shark species cannot kill people and almost all those that can never think to try as we great apes largely do not register as prey items, not to mention that sharks struggle a bit to hunt where all people are very nearly all the time, outside of the water. The small number that do sometimes bite people largely do so while being harassed or out of curiosity (a light biting is a ‘what’s this?’ investigatory technique – though this can still be fatal). The even smaller number that on rare occasions attack intending to prey largely mistake people for more familiar mammals like seals or bite while attempting to procure something attached to a diver as with the catch on a spearfisher’s string. A couple of species are both capable of killing people and also generalist predators that likely register people as potential prey. Only three shark species are confirmed to account for more than ten total human fatalities, the great white, tiger and bull. A fourth, the oceanic whitetip, likely accounts for many fatal attacks in remote, open waters unlikely to be recorded.

Despite the rarity of attacks, sharks occupy a primary location in colonial productions of nature horror – a genre positing a perpetual threat to “man” from an Othered animal or vegetal being, think: animal attack movies or a less comedic Little Shop of Horrors. Sharks are imposing beings and larger species are capable of tremendous power and rending of flesh in the course of their feeding. And given that people do travel over or swim in waters where sharks live or frequent, let’s call these human-infested waters, the very rare human-as-calories tragedy is bound to happen. The potential for horror here is visceral and obvious. Val Plumwood’s essay “On Being Prey” reflects upon her experience surviving a predatory attack by a saltwater crocodile in the north of the Australian settler colony. She describes it as “an experience beyond words of total terror”. The idea of being killed and eaten, or being killed by being eaten, is necessarily horror. This would be the case even if colonialism did not create “a masculinist monster myth” of order being synonymous with human dominance, a “master narrative” of control over and distance from ecological systems, a counterposition of humanity-animality.

Yet for all the horror of the idea of being prey, there is a total lack of malignance in that fate even as many nature horror stories project ideas of diabolical intent upon attacking animals. They were hungry and there you were or, they were wary of your intrusion and you intruded. It’s not a malignant calculus any more than some chameleon has some grudge against some grasshopper. The violence is strictly mis/opportunistic and the individual creatures involved are incidental, just the right combination of lucky/unlucky that defines predator/prey encounters. This is not the case in the Middle Passage. Humans as shark prey in the Middle Passage has purposeful intent from the terroristic to the punitive to the arbitrary. The horror is malignant not by the sharks’ actions, but in how slavers made captive Africans into shark food. Think Jaws combined with Saw combined with Hannibal and you’re in the ballpark, albeit far less horrifying than the actual details which I recommend against investigating for traumatic reasons but also ethical ones around the drive to consume and reproduce anti-Black violence.

During the Middle Passage, slavers fed murdered and living Africans to sharks as a convenient disposal of murdered remains and troublesome persons, to terrify living captives against escape or suicide overboard, to punish captives involved in insurrections and more. Slavers describe all of that in their contemporary narratives as well as Africans escaping ships to unknown fates including repatriation and liberation as well as death by shark. Slavers murdered at least two million Africans during the Middle Passage and discarded nearly all into the Atlantic. Sharks did not consume all these souls, but they consumed many. If sharks consumed just 1,000 of those dead or living – I found no estimates, reliable or otherwise, but 1,000 is at least a factor of ten below a wildly conservative guess if their frequency in slaver narratives is representative – that would still be nearly 20% higher than all combined fatal and non-fatal shark bites/attacks in the Florida Museum global database hosted by the University of Florida that tracks shark attacks since 1582, and 85% higher than the total verified fatal shark attacks. By any measure, the Middle Passage accounts for the overwhelming preponderance of cases of people being consumed by sharks. The percentage, though unknown in detail, is sufficient to say that it is the the “normal” way sharks eat people with all other examples being statistically peripheral. (This if my readings of shark ecology are correct in concluding that most historical ocean-going ships travel too fast for sharks to pursue longer than briefly or are otherwise not attractive to sharks leaving lesser probabilities for shark predation in the event of shipwreck, even incorrectly assuming a historically and geographically flat population density of sharks per square kilometer and oceanic shipwreck distribution).

The Meg, it’s knock-off Megalodon and its pending sequel, 2002’s Shark Attack 3: Megalodon and an earlier Megalodon from the same year, 2012’s Jurassic Shark, 2009’s Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus or any of the Mega Shark franchise, 2011’s Super Shark and the 2001 Antonio Sabato Jr. vehicle Shark Hunter account for ten of the feature length films about an extinct shark hunting people, a species that never once encountered any great ape in its millions of years of existence. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Sci-fi doesn’t have to have much sci in it to be a fun or good story. Over ten impossible megalodon films but not one involving the predominant political geography of material world consumption of people by sharks. Why are our imaginary universes so rarely grounded in material violences like the Middle Passage? This isn’t just the sci-fi shark attack stories like The Meg, Sharknado and 2-Headed Shark Attack.

I earlier argued that nearly all shark attack films are sci-fi in that sharks are not, as a rule, capable of consuming as much food as they do in shark attack movies. An adult great white is not plausibly likely to eat hundreds of pounds of people in two days like in The Shallows, much less in minutes as with Jaws 2. But even in those films portrayed as real-world like Jaws, I’m aware of none that take place in or reference the only historical geography where shark attacks on people were common and predictable. There are films like Frenzy and Open Water with divers and boaters marooned in remote areas in the face of hungry sharks but none of actual marronage from both slavers and their accompanying sharks. This has always been the case in film and tv but not always in other mediums.

 

Petition of the Sharks of Africa

Petition picture from the University of Virginia website

Scottish abolitionist and radical James Tytler produced in 1792 an early modern fantastic fiction work in his “The PETITION of the SHARKS of Africa” addressed “To the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of Great Britain, in Parliament Assembled”. In the petition, sharks collectively beg Parliament to not heed the demands of abolitionists as it will deprive a “numerous body” in “a very flourishing situation” of “many a delicious meal” of “large quantities of their most favourite food” over “the specious plea of humanity” that is abolitionism. Abolitionists made much out of the horror of slavers feeding captive Africans to sharks.

Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on

JWM Turner 1840 painting: Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on. Picture from Wikipedia

J.W.M. Turner’s 1840 oil on canvas Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (also called The Slave Ship) horrifically foregrounds a slave ship rollicking in heavy seas with sharks setting upon “the dead and dying” Africans-made-into-commodities thrown overboard. There are other pamphlets, poems, paintings, media accounts and more.

Yet fantastic fiction canon bibliographies do not mention Tytler’s text. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that displays Turner’s painting describes it as “a striking example of the artist’s fascination with violence both human and elemental” but does not mention the sharks in the painting, no matter that the foreground dominates the canvas. It goes beyond this. The Florida Museum worldwide historical shark attack database linked above does not, as best I can determine, account for a single Middle Passage attack. The Wikipedia pages for “Shark Attack” and the various geographical “List of fatal unprovoked shark attacks” pages do not mention the Middle Passage nor any of the documented African murders and deaths by shark during it. I could not access the entirety of every Discovery Channel Shark Week production but from what I could access or review through secondary sources, the Middle Passage is absent from its documentary coverage as well as that of Blue Planet and other NatGeo, Nature, Nova, BBC and other wildlife documentaries about or featuring sharks. Much like shark attack cinema, every possible and impossible shark attack story can be told except for the ones that comprise the vast preponderance. Why should this be?

Marcus Rediker writes about tall ships in perfect analogy to shark attack cinema in his 2008 article in Atlantic Studies, “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade”.

Recently I have been studying one kind of tall ship: the slave ship. During this time I discovered the limit of the romance [with tall ships]. It extends to all tall ships except the most important one. The slave ship is so far from romantic that we cannot bear to look at it, even though it was one of the two main institutions of modern slavery. The other, the plantation, has been studied intensively, but slave ships hardly at all. The rich historical literature has much to say about the origins, time, scale, flows, and profits, but little to say about the vessel that made it possible, even though the slave ship was the mechanism for history’s greatest forced migration, for an entire phase of globalization, an instrument of “commercial revolution” and the making of plantations, empires, capitalism, industrialization. If Europe, Africa, and Americas are haunted by the legacies of race, class, and slavery, the slaver is the ghost ship of our modern consciousness.

Rediker was writing prior to Christina Sharpe’s monumental 2016 volume In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and the research and work it inspires along with some preceding work but his point remains largely true. In Fred Moten’s phrasing, the Middle Passage is “the interpellative event of modernity in general.” It establishes ways of meanings through which we understand the world. The answer to the above questions about investigating every possible and impossible scenario in shark attack movies except for the main one is in Moten’s phrasing. The Middle Passage and African Slavery are frames of reference through which we experience the contemporary world. Settler colonialism destroys the Native world to build the anti-Black one and in this building creates ways of meaning, frames of reference, interpellations, discourses, normativity. As the “interpellative event” the Middle Passage is what creates the world in which shark attack movies are imagined. The narrative gap between the world that creates shark attack movies and the world they purport to portray lies in the difficulty of finding, or thinking to look for, a frame of reference with which to observe our frame of reference.

The 2007 sensationalist documentary Sharks on Trial opens asserting that “sharks terrify us” and “trigger our deepest primeval fears”. “Primeval” in this context is weirdly appropriate in how it suggests the Middle Passage as the “interpellative event of modernity in general,” how it is world building. Some colonizing empires, geographies or proto-states had earlier descriptions or cultural and linguistic representations of sharks but lost them during the Medieval period. José Castro writes that “Large sharks were known to the Greeks and Romans, and references to large sharks of the Mediterranean are found in the writings of classical writers from Aristotle to Aelian,” but that “Large sharks are conspicuously absent from the medieval bestiaries that described the then known fauna as well as some imaginary animals.” The word shark enters the English and Spanish languages through the Middle Passage. Rediker writes that “the English shark thus seems to have entered the English language through the talk of slave-trade sailors, who may have picked up and adapted the word ‘xoc,’ […] from the Maya in the Caribbean.” Castro notes the “Spanish borrowed the word tiburón from the Carib[s].” Understanding the Middle Passage as modernity’s “interpellative event” means sharks are part of creating the modern world, a synonym for the anti-Black one, making consciousness of them “primeval” indeed.

Works like Thomas Peschak’s 2013 text from University of Chicago Press, Sharks and People: Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea studiously ignore the medieval pre/proto-European break in shark knowledge instead asserting that “Historians have traced fear of sharks back to ancient times, as far back as the the civilizations of Greece and Rome.” Leaving aside the glaring absence of Kru, Polynesian and other non-European coastal and seafaring populations’ shark narratives — including those from the populations from which colonizers took words for sharks — filling in an appropriately blank spot to draw an ahistorical lineage obscures the Middle Passage’s founding role in colonial understandings of the shark as horror fodder. Peschak’s book is geared toward the noble goal of shark conservation while dedicating just one-half of one paragraph amongst 286 pages to the Middle Passage, the only modern period were there was anything close to parity in the numbers of people eaten by sharks and sharks eaten by people. As opposed to today when sharks comprise roughly 99.9999958% of the annual deaths in fatal human-shark encounters and humans around .0000042%, primarily through capitalist enclosure of seascapes and commodification of sealife for rents and profits. Anti-Blackness, this formation of a humanity-animality binary with Black people positioned as, in Frank Wilderson’s terms, commodifiable sites of accumulation and locations for gratuitous violence, provides the grammar for the mass shark slaughters, for making monsters of sharks, that Peschak and others so justly campaign against. Leaving the Middle Passage out of this narrative reduces the legibility of what creates both anti-Blackness and mass shark slaughters through capitalist fishing.

Just as shark attack cinema is colonial cultural production, the Middle Passage sharks are a part of a colonial ecology. Their desires were for a mix of shade from the hot tropical sun and the convenient food that often accompanies large, slow moving, floating objects, but slavers deployed those impulses as part of a terror regime. Rediker quotes one source saying

the master of a Guinea-ship, finding a rage for suicide among his slaves, from a notion the unhappy creatures had, that after death they should be restored again to their families, friends, and country; to convince them at least some disgrace should attend them here, he immediately ordered one of their dead bodies to be tied by the heels to a rope, and so let down into the sea; and, though it was drawn up again with great swiftness, yet in that short space, sharks had bit off all but the feet.

Other sources narrate kidnapped Africans being fed alive to sharks for the same purpose of terrorizing others. Sharks then, formed the exterior perimeter of The Hold and were purposefully recruited for that function. Redicker quoting again, “Our way to entice [sharks] was by Towing overboard a dead Negro which they would follow till they had eaten him up.” For colonizers the origins of shark chumming was not to catch sharks but to attract them as predators for the purpose of horror, for the purpose of a living fence.

Christina Sharpe writes, “The belly of the ship births blackness.” The slave ship’s Hold is the indigenous geography of Blackness including it’s construct of Black Captivity. The Hold’s geography of Black Captivity intended totalization. If The Hold is where Blackness is born, sharks are its birth attendants. One slave ship passenger wrote, per Rediker, “we caught plenty of fish almost every day, especially Sharks, which wee salted, & preserv’d for ye Negroes.” He continued, “They are good victuals, if well dress’d, tho’ some won’t eat them, because they feed upon men; ye Negroes fed very heartily upon them.” Thinking again of Plumwood’s “experience beyond words of total terror” at being crocodile prey, escape overboard from The Hold is exactly this yet compounded with Black Captivity. Death and/or consumption by shark may not offer any freedom from The Hold but could mean being very literally fed back into it or nourishing one’s former captors, mediated by sharks. One’s physical being put to work after biological death is a level of totalitarian control difficult to approach. While the sharks themselves offer no malevolence, they are mediators for slavers’ cruelties, desires and hungers. Almost all shark attack movies aspire towards horror but none approach this, not in topic nor terror. Not even those that make out sharks as illegible monsters, as ‘here be dragons’.

Despite everything written above, I’m neither interested in nor calling for movies or stories about sharks eating captive Black people in horror cinema and television. Social media, cinema, TV and carceral systems are already chock full of Black death and pain intended for consumption, often under the ruse of “wokeness”. It’s part of the continual construction and production of anti-Blackness. Inside of anti-Blackness there is no revolutionary potential in this kind of production of cinematic Black death. But grounding our imaginary universes inside material violences does not necessitate reproducing them. Part of cinematic horror, including nature horror, is the relief that comes with the end of the horror affect, as when someone is finally rescued from or kills an attacking shark. In shark attack movies this can mean sharks as secondary terror elements in Middle Passage revolt, survival or escape stories. Or even sharks as intentional allies in vanquishing slavers – an inversion of The Hold as a location of Black captivity, instead its wanton destruction becoming what Wilderson describes as “gratuitous freedom” – and so many more possibilities. This second example where the cruel sharks of nature horror can similarly plot in hypothetical Middle Passage stories applies equally to antecedents of other fictional aquatic beings like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Madison from Splash, Aquaman and Namor in comics and others. Where, in their universes, were their ancestors during the Middle Passage? Like the imaginary villainous sharks of nature horror with their bottomless stomachs, their peoples necessarily encountered the Black Atlantic during the Middle Passage. What happened next?

jaws

A shark prop supposed to be a great white reduces the settler population by one. Screencap from Jaws (1975)

Instead of shark attack cinema reproducing anti-Black normativity through examining every possible story but the true one, it can offer different reference points for meaning. Instead of anti-Blackness being the frame through which the story is told, a different positionality can be the frame that breaks The Hold. A Black liberation shark attack story does not the revolution make, to be egregiously obvious. But each contribution towards ways of meaning not premised upon anti-Blackness creates a new potential hegemony, a new lens through which we engage the world and, in that, a partial end to the present world. It also turns upside down existing shark attack cinema, reframing colonizers being “victimized” by sharks as not horror. Sharks, following “the ghost ship of our modern consciousness” are the heroes haunting the settlers. I don’t want to overstate the potential individual enterprises like what a single shark attack movie against The Hold could do. But it’s hard to imagine action for real change without talking about things. And cinema is one form of conversation. And the nature horror genre can be part of that conversation when it stops giving us every possible story but the true one. Thanks for reading.

 

Works providing the basis for this essay

Saidiya Hartman Scenes of Subjection

Saidiya Hartman & Frank Wilderson “The Position of the Unthought”

Frank Wilderson Red, White and Black

Fred Moten Stolen Life

Jared Sexton “Unbearable Blackness”

Christina Sharpe In the Wake

Marcus Rediker “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade”

Val Plumwood “On Being Prey”

Thanos as Malthus

KINDA SORTA SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR FOLLOW

 

 

 

The new blockbuster hit Avengers: Infinity War has as it’s major plot conflict an attempt by the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and others to prevent the Titan Thanos from collecting all six of the Infinity Stones, mounting them in the gauntlet and using the collected power to end half of all life in the universe. I read this as Thanos taking a very specifically Malthusian anti-demos approach.

Thanos, in the film, is motivated by events from his home moon of Titan where a crisis of resource exploitation came about (the how is not clear). Thanos offer a solution of reducing the potential pool of exploiters but was rejected. Implied in the film is that the continuation of the overexploitation makes Titan a lifeless, desert world in the end.

This is the current trajectory of Earth in the material world, though this isn’t generally explored in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that Infinity War is part of. So using Earth as an example, apart from the local geographies were humans first evolved, when humans first arrived in a new geography they exterminated through overhunting or elimination of competitors some of the other megafauna. But this isn’t the same as ecosystem collapse. As example, after humans first arrived on Turtle Island they killed (or otherwise rendered extinct) several large animals but attained a sort of harmony over time by and large. This is the same path that happened in Australia and elsewhere. Capitalism created the overexploitation when it reimagined the ecology not as a place of being but as an exploitable resource. Infinity War naturalizes capitalist this growth-by-any-means throughout the universe as though the “Infinity War” is caused by a class one brought by the capitalist enclosure of the universe.

But in the material world it is capitalist accumulation that produces environmental collapse and resource scarcity. The overwhelming majority of the population, largely delineated by the lines created by colonialism and African Slavery, not only has nothing to do with the cause of the overexploitation, but are similarly victimized by it. Thanos’s understanding is not this though. His is a very capitalist interpretation of demographic danger as if the very fact of population produces danger. Thanos imagines overpopulation as a thing since overproduction and overconsumption cannot be imagined inside capitalism as capital is incapable of self-reflection. His solution then, is to end half of all life to bring “balance” to the universe. Were Thanos focused on overconsumption instead of overpopulation, he would find solutions to the “problem” short of culling the herd.

For example, if the full Infinity Gauntlet can end all life through physical erasure, it certainly could create matter too and produce what is lacked. Or instead of “half”, Thanos could use it to kill the exploiters, the CEOs and what have you. But Thanos can’t imagine this. Instead he designs that half the beings in the universe must die to avoid the fate of his home world. The culling is very much a Malthusian solution of cruel social engineering. The filmmakers give Thanos the libertarian gloss of fake egalitarianism by insisting all the powerful and disimpowered alike will face this culling. But what does this have to do with consumption of resources? If capitalist overconsumption is the norm throughout the MCU then a numerically small percentage of each planet’s population controls the resources. Thanos’ numerically random cull will disproportionately affect the majority, again delineated by the lines of colonialism and African slavery, who are not responsible for this overconsumption, further concentrating power in the hands of the elites who brought on the crisis.

Thanos’s solution is not the only evidence of his Malthusian demographic take. The definition of “life” as exemplified by the cull points to this as well. We see part of the cull in a lush Wakandan forest but no trees or other plants are seen to die, only humans and humanoid-ish beings. So if the definition isn’t literally “life”, then it is some kind of colonial definition of animality that picks what/who is a qualified life and who/what is an exploitable resource less-than-life (which should’ve but didn’t spare a specific Avenger so Thanos must not have read Wynter and Wilderson lol!). Taken as the product of MCU storylines to date, a Malthusian “positive” effect the film describes as inevitable. In one of the concluding lines, Benedryl Slumberpatch’s character appears to be recruited to Thanos’ POV, suggesting an inevitability to the Malthusian culling.

All this is well and good but if Thanos is Malthus, what potential does that open up for the Avengers? It’s kinda silly to imagine that Tony Stark is anything but an arms dealer and Steve Rodgers is anything but an imperial super-grunt but being forced to take an anti-Malthusian position allows for the possibility of anti-colonial positioning. Expecting this from the MCU is silly but it’s something to aspire towards.

Casting a Spell of Settler Normativity

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The 2016 film Dr. Strange is a paradigmatic example of how the settler society naturalizes settler colonialism in the imaginary universes it produces. The film studiously avoids political discussion so the coloniality is only implied, albeit quite heavily. Folks who followed Dr. Strange’s production will remember problems in the film’s production related to both the orientalist narrative and whitewashing of the cast . But this is not where the film’s racism ends. As noted previously on this blog, the US settler society produces imaginary universes that share it’s premise of indigenous removal. The Marvel universe is no different than the material universe in this regard. The United States destroys the native world through constructing the anti-Black one.

We learn towards the end of Dr. Strange that there are three “sanctums” operated by the Masters of the Mystic Arts. One is in Hong Kong and the second in London. Neither of these are obvious historical choices for a mythology supposedly stemming from the Tibetan plateau. But both have had human populations for several thousand years. So let’s chalk it up to drift. The third is in New York City. Why should this be? Why would this ancient sect set up shop in such a young city? How long has it been there? Were/are the sorcerers settlers? Did native Masters of the Mystic Arts prior to European colonization operate the sanctum? No matter how we answer these questions they exemplify settler normativity, how the destruction of the native world and construction of the anti-Black one is naturalized in settler discourse.

If the Masters of the Mystic Arts set up the sanctum as part of colonization then “defending the planet” from extradimensional threats means defending the settler’s world, defending a colonial cosmology; the destruction of the native cosmos is already including in their very settlerness. If they were there before colonization, why did they not defend the native cosmos from settler invasion? From what little we’ve seen there is no question of ability. Through making portals they could’ve simply rerouted ships back towards their own lands or to Antarctica or beneath the ocean surface, all that before considering their superiority in potential violence. Dr. Strange’s cosmos explores neither of these because it cannot. To explore either one is to question the premise of the settler cosmos. Instead it goes unasked. Like all basic questions of settler colonialism, it is simply naturalized in discourse at a level below the observable because it is the frame through which observations are made. The comics offer a little more information on this but it’s really more of the same, naturalizing indigenous removal in the narrative as a natural progression from native to settler. The dispossession of natives is as fundamental to settler imaginary universes, including the settler fantastic, as it is to the material settler colony. This also shows yet again the limits of improved representation alone. The question of settler normativity is structural, not representative and basic changes to the Marvel universe are required to address this spell of settler normativity.

From Abar to Black Panther: Witnessing the superheroism of Black storytelling

Guest post from Briana Ureña Ravelo.

 

 

Abar broadsheet

Broadsheet for Abar: The First Black Superman

To gear up for my Black Panther weekend starting today, I have been watching movies from the Marvel Comics Universe and the movie Abar: The First Black Superman (rereleased on video in 1990 as In Your Face), a 1977 Blaxploitation film credited as the first Black superhero movie. It is the story of a young poor Black organizer, Abar, part of a Black Panthers-reminiscent group of hip young militants called the Black Front of Unity, and an affluent Doctor Kinkade, on the brink of a secret scientific development, and his family newly located to a white neighborhood not to happy about the prospect of a Black family moving in. In fact, one woman, furious at the prospect of the illusion of a pure white community being destroyed, explodes and threatens the family with arson, assault and mobilization of the community against them.

Now to be sure, it is a low-budget Blaxploitation film of the corniest kind. In this review I won’t be touching upon the technicality or quality of the acting, writing, plot or action, because honestly it would end there, it’s all so embarrassingly shoddy and amateurish. Granted, there are moments wherein the poor quality adds to the comedic or narrative affect. One such moment is when the titular character Abar literally rides in on the side of a garbage truck to Dr. Kinkade’s rescue while funky 70s action music plays in the background, fights two white men who are assaulting Dr, Kinkade and throws them in the garbage, enlisting his garbage truck driving-accomplices to clean up the Kinkades’ yard and throws the trash on top of the discarded men, one of whom’s leg is sticking akimbo.

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The Black Front of Unity arriving to take out the white trash

The dialogue, however bad it is, also yet has many gems. One is a conversation between Abar and Dr. Kinkade wherein Abar castigates Kinkade for being affluent, bourgeoisie and white-aspiring, accusing him of no longer caring for the poor Black people he comes from and that Abar fights for. Dr. Kinkade dismisses him and his “ghetto-preaching” and says he thinks change comes from the Black voting block. Abar then says that actually doesn’t do much to achieve change because it doesn’t guarantee good politicians of any background and the ones in office currently, Black and white, weren’t changing anything. Why would the more do it? Essentially, Abar was telling Dr. Kinkade to shove his liberal sensibilities up his ass, wake up and see the desperation felt in the hoods Kinkade wished to avoid for the sake of upward mobility and, instead, use his affluence to help and move back to the hood.

The film is filled with many such class critiques of the position that Dr. Kinkade and others like him have as an affluent Black people and their clear disgust and disdain for poor and working class Black people, their affluence named by Abar and others in his crew as being stolen from poor Black folks. Dr. Kinkade is painted as a traitor to other more marginalized ghetto folks, albeit a sympathetic one only trying to do what’s best for his family and help Black people in the long run. Narratives of Black sacrifice and and martyrdom abound and dance between honest tellings and Black pain porn.

kinkade in the lab

Dr. Kinkade in the lab looking for the missing piece needed for his superhero potion

An Afrofuturistic showcasing of scientific advancement as the key to lead Black people to a brighter liberated future lies in Dr. Kinkade’s experimentations that lead Abar to develop super powers and fight the ills that plague the Black community. Dr. Kinkade and Abar fight amongst each other and within themselves about tactics and perspectives and sacrifice. Does acting respectable, obeying the law and voting for change work best? Or does the impoverished demanding freedom and taking justice in their own hands from the bottom down by any means necessary lead to true change? Dr Kinkade’s lab has a poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. looming in the back and he and Abar have multiple conversations and exchanges about his method and legacy and their thoughts and struggles with it. Abar names that he doesn’t want to be a supernatural hero, perfect. He just wants suffering to stop but to still be flawed, passionate, human.

The white neighbors are apathetic and sneering at best and overtly racist, abusive, murderous (seriously they all have guns and bombs and try their best to take this family out and succeed in killing Doctor Kinkade’s son), self-interested, cruel. The politicians, including the Black ones, want no trouble and clearly lay out a plan to use the law and pay-offs to strong arm the family out. Police murder then plant a gun on black man they shot without reason.

Abar and Kinkade, before Abar's suit wearing stars

Abar and Dr. Kinkade before Abar starts wearing suits

At the end of the movie after he discovers Dr. Kinkade’s experimentations and drinks the potion that makes him superman, Abar, who was the cool militant voice of the film, strangely enough becomes a Black Respectability Politicking Jiminy Cricket in a suit with the ability to walk around and hypnotize dark skin poor Black people to stop pimping, partying, gambling, gangbanging, drinking and robbing each other. Even though he spent the whole moving decrying the respectability of Dr. Kinkade, he inevitably becomes an image of respectability himself. He does at one point magic away a clearly wordly pastor’s fancy car away and instead make him ride a horse and buggy, and turn the fancy meals of upper class Black people belittling the state of poor Black people into maggots and worms. There’s many moments where the story is super sympathetic towards the wildly savage and violent white people constantly attacking the Black characters, but Abar and his militancy shines through at the end when he enacts Exodus-style vengeance on the racist white people of the town via plagues.

It’s cliche, but infuriating to say that it shows that not much has changed, both in the frustration that is still facing the same challenges Black people over 40 years ago faced but also in really powerful and rooting sense that we are still telling and navigating Blackness, oppression, and heroism in the face of it through media. Overall, I was struck at how many parallels, good, bad and complicated, that could be made between this movie and existing depictions and narratives in Black media today, and in political struggles of this day as well.

Aside from just good ol’ blatant racism, part of the reticence from white people towards Black superheroes and storylines is racialized anti-Black perceptions of Blackness as burdensome. That is, Blackness does not easily allow anyone, Black, white or otherwise, one to fully escape and suspend belief to immerse oneself in an alternate universe that doesn’t in that universe deal and touch upon the realities of Blackness in one way or another. Whiteness, socialized as the default blank slate, can escape all definitions and under white supremacy fully embody everyone. In tandem it does not believe Blackness can be relatable to anyone who isn’t Black nor allow Black people to abandon the constraints of this world to experience and immerse themselves in comic book and movie world either. You have to, in one way or another, face, embrace, illustrate, grapple or full on put paint the town red with Blackness if you feature Black people in your story line. Abar does it poorly and heavy-handedly, with many missteps along the way, but there are still really good moments that feel current and relatable because it is dealing with Blackness in a superhero film where the problem is oppression and the supernatural element’s goal is to liberate Black people.

It shows that this alleged narrative burden of Blackness — of always being perceived through that lens — is not alleviated by trying to shirk it and be “colorblind”. Instead, by rejecting the notion that it is a burden in the first place, and embracing Black history and narrative traditions and using them creatively in a superhero film, it expands other people’s racist narrow scope of what Black storytelling can look like in that genre while rejecting Eurocentrism and “apolitical” whiteness as the norm. If being “colorblind” and assimilating doesn’t work as political, social and cultural policy why would it work on a narrative level? Abar deals with the realities of Black life and politics in the late seventies while playing the golem. Dr Kinkade, broken by overwork and the loss of his family, reflects and broods quietly with Abar on his porch about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fear for their people. He says that while nonviolence is a noble goal, a “strong positive force” is needed to “counteract the evil of violence.” That strong positive force is his superman concoction he convinces Abar to drink and use for the good of his people.

And so our best media-literature, comics and film-has always worked to exemplify and describe, elevate and illuminate, grapple and claim, what and how to handle and depict Blackness, the Black experience and Black people. Do you talk about Black struggles and risk only showcasing torture porn stories of suffering, poverty, exploitation, rape, slavery, gang violence and drugs, or do you try to dance around it or skip it entire and accidentally fall into white-washing and sanitizing the Black experience? Do you tell white/European stories but with Black people in them (Idris as Heimdall in Thor) or do you actually try to depict and showcase a Black/African story? Should a white person write and direct that or should they always be Black? How do you do all of this creatively while dealing with real life pushback and racism towards your artistic choices?

I’m excited for Black Panther as it has established the goal to meet these challenge head on by being as Black as possible with as many hands on deck to tell those stories well and with complexity and power. While it is still a major movie in a white industry and a white comic book universe written by a white man (and debuting just before the Black Panther party did), many Black Panther comic runs have been in its more recently history have been written by Black writers, the director and screenplay writer of the movie are Black, and most of it’s cast is Black, unambiguously so. The soundtrack, designs, inspirations, politics are all very intentionally Black and decolonial.

Again, aside from the fact that it is technically poor film, Abar falls flat in many ways, like in its depictions of how to challenge and face white supremacy, oppression and exploitation, medical experimentation and and consent/autonomy, the typical misogynoirist erasure and usage of Black women and girls as objects in a larger storyline dominated yet by men, classism and respectability. I’ll be looking out for these same things and more when I see Black Panther. But the industry, political landscape and discourse has progressed and grown and changed a lot since Abar first was made and came out. Movies like Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok follow in a much more current manifestation of the tradition that centers Black struggle, culture realities in an alternative universe so as to both give an Afrocentric spin to popular and beloved mediums, archetypes and stories and also to tell decolonial tales with a futuristic edge that showcases powerful and illustrious worlds that are not empty of Blackness but full of it as examples for us in the real world. We use these pieces of fiction to describe, reveal, tell and connect with our true selves, display what our deepest struggles, loves, and desires and lead us as people into more brilliant and creative futures. So as a lover of stories, an organizer and an Afro-Latina woman, I can’t wait to see what Black Panther has in store for us.

 

 

Marvel History is Whitewash

CW: Racist comics imagery

 

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In the expectation that Black Panther lives up to the immense talent of the cast and promise of the incredible Ryan Coogler’s aesthetics and politics, here’s a little more historical context on how deep runs anti-Black imagery in Marvel. Timely Comics, which later becomes Marvel Comics, first had a Black “character” in the Young Allies comic in 1941. Young Allies depicted a group of young “patriots” who first joined Captain America (who was also in his original iteration, this is part of his story too) in beating up Nazis and was soon spun off into a comic of its own. The most prominent Young Ally was Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s longtime sidekick, brought to the screen in the 2014 film Captain America: Winter Soldier and 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.

 

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The character (caricature really) was named, not joking, Whitewash Jones and he was portrayed as per the images included throughout. There’s not much point in discussing the images themselves for the purposes of this post. Suffice to say they are exactly what they appear to be. This is the imagery of Blackness that was the point of departure for future Marvel depictions.

 

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It’s true that Black characters in mainstream and indie comics are no longer drawn like this. But before writing this off as an image of a bygone era, it was just in 2015 that Avengers: Age of Ultron portrayed a heroic plunder of African resources by white capitalists.

 

 
In this clip we see Captain America and Tony Stark worried after they find out Ultron has sought out arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. They learn that Klaue has been branded with the word “thief” in Wakandan and Stark says, “If this guy got out of Wakanda with some of their trade goods…” Cap replies, “I thought your father said he got the last of it.”
 
Stark’s father was an arms trader just like Tony and Klaue. What this exchange implies very clearly was if the elder Stark’s plunder of Wakandan natural resources, specifically vibranium, had been complete then the threat posed by Ultron would be dramatically lower. So while the representative imagery of Blackness has changed in the Marvel universe we still see a structural imagery premised on colonial power and plundering Africa as a fundamental “good”.


I’ve written before about the colonial present in comics. This structural description of the present is why Whitewash Jones is relevant when we look at Captain America’s portrayal. It’s part of Captain America’s history and representative changes, while vital and 89723465897623458761348756234875% necessary, do not inhere structural changes in the universes portrayed, much less in the material universe producing the portrayals. This is the universe into which Black Panther is coming and what it will have triumphed against if it fulfills it’s incredible promise.

 

The Punisher (1989)

I firmly believe that bad films cannot be made worse for spoilers but what follows reveals some plot points. This is part of a series looking at films from Marvel comics in the run-up to the release of Ryan Coogler’s The Black Panther.

One of the first films based on Marvel comics was the 1989 direct-to-video Punisher adaptation directed by Mark Goldblatt. Dolph Lundgren is Frank Castle with Jeroen Krabbé and Kim Miyori the main villains who are at odds both with each other and Castle (The Punisher). Miyori plays Lady Tanaka, the head of a yakuza organization taking over New York organized crime at the expense of the Italian families led by Gianni Franco (Krabbé). All the while Castle is being sought by his ex-partner and cop Jake Berkowitz (Lou Gossett Jr.).

Franco has returned to New York after the Punisher killed the other family leaders, leaving the mafia in a weakened state. Tanaka takes advantage of this and makes a power play by kidnapping all the mafioso’s children and then killing the parents when they arrive to negotiate a ransom. The cast of killers in that scene is quite funny. Franco forms a tentative alliance with the Punisher in order to save the children. They win the day in the end before Franco turns on Castle and tries to kill him and ends up dead. Solid performances by Gossett Jr. and Krabbé are undermined by Lundgren as Castle. He is at his least charismatic here, seems bored more than stone-faced, and has a bad stubble make-up.

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Dolph Lundgren with fake stubble looking more dead bored than dead-eyed killer

Some folks immersed in or brought up in the Model Minority racist paradigm won’t remember so clearly the really intense Buy America campaigns of the late 1970s through early 1990s that peaked with Reaganite White Nationalism. They were not only “Buy America” but especially “Don’t buy Japan”. Much of this was centered around the auto industry and much of it had implicitly or explicitly racist themes, imagery and language. One  famous example is Gung Ho, the 1986 Ron Howard film where a Japanese firm buys a US auto plant. The new bosses constantly yell at the workers in the way the US writers imagined they did at Japanese plants (which, without apologizing for Japan’s poor labor conditions, was and is not the case). There is an intended feel-good element to the film, that strand of U.S. liberalism that is simultaneously racist and anti-union under the guise of “can’t we all just get along?”. A second type of 1980s anti-Asian racism was the Rambo: First Blood Part II and Missing In Action type where Vietnamese people held and tortured U.S. POWs for a decade after Vietnam’s victory and it was up to Americans with machine guns to save them by slaughtering Vietnamese people by the hundreds.

Only American pluck can save the Japanese from overwork

The Punisher‘s plotline has to be contextualized in these popular conceptions. Because Lady Tanaka did not just kidnap the mafioso’s kids, she planned to sell them into slavery which was a key part of their criminal enterprise. “White slavery” was a popular storyline from the 1910s-1950s especially with Chinese and Japanese villains selling white women in pulps, dime store novels and films. The sexual threat posed by Asian men was an important component of “Yellow Peril” discourse, of which this film is very much a part. Asian “white slavery” rings weren’t invented just for this film, they are long a component of the white imagination (and not without crossover into conceptions of “human trafficking” by the way). Just a few years before The Punisher, Girls of the White Orchid, a made for tv movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, offered a feature length story on American television of an innocent white girl tricked into sex slavery by the yakuza. A more recent version is the 2008 film Taken where Liam Neesen must save his daughter from evil Arabs who buy her as a sex slave. Best I know, none of these narratives meaningfully looked at actual Japanese kidnapping of Korean women during Japan’s colonial rule there.

Lady Tanaka laughing evily

In the final scene Tanaka is for no clear reason wearing something like geisha make-up and costume, presumably to play up her alterity. Furthering this otherness, most of the yakuza killed during the final scene are men wielding swords while dressed in hakamas because….yakuza bring swords to gunfights I guess. Ya know, just because they’re organized crime doesn’t mean their crime is well organized! For context on this, Punisher is a hardcore fanatic. See as one example the page below from the Civil War storyline. Punisher has sided with Captain America against Iron Man and the government. Some supervillains have thrown in with Cap too, understanding the threat posed by the Registration Act that would add yet another felony charge to their everyday activities, this one for simply existing without registering their powers. When they reveal themselves Punisher immediately mows them down. When Cap flips out about this, Punisher says “they were killers and thieves”. In most iterations Punisher has no grey zone. So in the 1989 film it takes something really extraordinary for Castle to be working with Franco. That something is Japanese otherness.

Production wise this isn’t the worst Punisher film but, in close competition with the 2011 short film The Punisher: Dirty Laundry, is probably the most racist. This is the Marvel world into which in 47 days comes Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. I wanna keep focus on that last sentence to contextualize how much work it will have taken to pull off a Black liberation vision within Marvel, if that is what Coogler’s film turns out to be.