When you just want to eat your steak in peace but you have responsibilities
“You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
This article contains spoilers for the films the Matrix and Independence Day: Resurgence. I warn for the Matrix because, almost twenty years on, if you haven't seen it, it's still worth the effort before you read what's below.
Sometimes I wish I could un-learn the past year-and-a-half.
I wish I could go along to a big blockbuster film without seeing its story, characters or casting choices as a reflection of its creators’ ideas on the world and their place in it.
After much of the world, I finally saw the sequel to Independence Day -- Resurgence. I am grateful I’ve come to a place where I can still enjoy media while recognising its faults.
In this film there were many, and I was willing to let it lie, but then my mother (bless her soul) starting letting it rip on the long voyage home. And I thought, well. While we were stuck in traffic anyway.
I wish I could watch a film about alien invasions and not notice that even when the black hero is touted as unofficial “royalty”, he gets less screen time, less to say, and fewer people to love in comparison to his peers. Jessie Usher’s character, Dylan Dubrow-Hiller , was relegated to a symbol of hope, seen and rarely heard.
I wish I didn’t notice how the only other major member of the cast who is black and survives until the credits, DeObia Oparei (warlord character Dikembe Umbutu), is only present as a mentor of savagery and an all access key to ancient, foreign knowledge. Fight fire with fire; aliens with aliens.
"As a teacher, one of the core issues I run up against with my students in Indigenous literature and Indigenous studies classes is what Thomas King calls ‘the Dead Indian’ (55): the fallacious notion that Indigenous culture is not authentic if it intersects with the present or the future.” (x)
The stereotypes about indigenous knowledge are alive and well in Independence Day: Resurgence where indigenous African communities have mediated their way into the modern world by mode of isolation, violence and corruption. Nobody denies that warlords exist and terrorize / govern territories in various parts of the African continent. Nobody contests that Africa has a history of conflict. But Africa is more than that. Of all the places that alien ship had to land, its epicentre was over a wilderness, rather than, say, a university? An urbanised area with a rich density and diversity of people? Or even a sleeper superpower nation like Wakanda? Because if you’re going to create a fictional state anyway, why not go hard or go home?
But it’s okay, we understand the primary blockbuster audiences might only trust indigenous knowledge if it flexes its muscles against a bronzed horizon, and recruits a white, French academic to consult.
There was no reason why the academic, a new character and love interest of the returning Doctor Levinson, couldn’t have been a fellow of African descent whose mother also now lives in London. What an interesting tension that might have been for the interpersonal dynamic of a warlord working with one of his own or neighbouring expatriates, foreign-educated, coming home. Would it have been a divisive point or one they bonded over, for a richer partnership towards knowledge to curb the alien threat? We’ll never know.
But to take it a step back, there was no reason why that ship had to touch down over Africa in the first place. The filmmakers needed that ship to touch down and, of all the continents in the entire world, they chose Africa.
The path to exotic answers is laden with bland assumptions.
If those answers had to come from an indigenous community, it suggests the Americans have so successfully erased their own, that they couldn’t let that ship dock in the Land of the Free. Think of the politics. Empowering their own neighbours? What were they afraid of, adding to that time-honoured tradition of offending them? Or that the native American communities would, say, demand clean water for working in collaboration?
Why not go to one of the oldest surviving cultures in the world that are still in their native land: the indigenous people of Australia? You wouldn’t even have to go out to Woop Woop. Australia’s indigenous people are not beyond the reach of telecomms despite the receding myth of the National Broadband Network. They’re in our cities. They’re in Parliament.
But we understand it may be hard to recognise an indigenous community when they're not part of your direct supply chain.
So, Africa. We get it.
I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed. All those dollars, Producers, and you couldn’t even give Bill Pullman a worthy reprisal speech. And Will Smith’s son… now, I’m a conversational-level polyglot, so let’s talk that one language we both understand: money. If you combined Dylan’s character with the orphan maverick pilot (Hemsworth) who came with a bouquet of fiancée + superfluous, worshipful lackey, you could have saved yourself a whole third wheel! That's money in the bank. I understand you would have then had an interracial relationship with the President’s daughter, but I know that wouldn’t have been awkward for you because it’s 2016, and #BlackLivesMatter.
On some days, I wish I didn’t see all of this.
Knowledge – let’s speak here specifically about the long and tangled saga of postcolonialism – is a bit like the Matrix.
You were born into the Matrix. It is a living, breathing legacy of battles won and negotiated treaties; a system that organises people, places and resources in the best way to sustain and improve itself. The Matrix both in the film and in our real world is the manifestation of collective will, specifically, the will that organised itself to successfully rise above the rest. There is no one dominant and lasting superior Will of the Matrix, a quick glance at our history and its sliding door of empires shows us that.
The Matrix we live in today is not so obvious as people living in pods of biofluid as batteries, but we rarely function without requiring cooperation for some aspect of our lives. In some measure, we are often valued and judged by merit of our contribution to society and service to each other (the battery aspect). We are sophisticated and hopefully self-aware batteries who have the options of living out fulfilling lives in addition to service. When things align serendipitously, these can even complement the nature of our service and “enhance our battery capacity”.
The Matrix element we cannot escape is that we were all born into some specific time and place that was not of our choice. That choice was determined by one or more of our parents and/or guardians, whose options were determined by a long history preceding them deciding such factors as where and how their parents could live, learn, earn, and what they could provide for their families.
The Matrix is an ongoing negotiation of power.
But to say that you can neither see, smell nor touch the Matrix is not true. Like our history and heritage, it did not stop, but persevered, transformed, into now and us.
“The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church... when you pay your taxes.”
Unfortunately nobody can be told what the Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself. Like the film, you can step outside the Matrix, but not by unplugging – instead, by going deeper down the rabbit hole. By looking closer at every detail and interplay of the world. By learning and recognising how closely connected everything and everyone truly is. By recognising systems and reinforcing behaviours that were there your entire life.
There are layers upon layers of history and culture playing out and transforming before our eyes in everyday interactions.
“You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”
Education is the red, bitter pill of rude awakening. It should come with the prescription label: May lead to moments of intense remorse, unconditional compassion, social responsibility, and sighs of, “Just let me enjoy this steak in peace!”
Everyone knows somebody who’s chewing some kind of red pill. They’re your parents correcting a nonchalant remark about anti-vaccination or family violence at dinner conversation. They’re your friends walking in the streets for #BlackLivesMatter, to #PrayForBaghdad, insisting #RefugeesWelcome and challenging us to #ParkUpForHomes. They are the mentors in your social media feed posting context of history and memes about politics.
The further they’ve traveled down the rabbit hole, the more desperate they may sound because the air becomes thin down there, it gets harder to see the light above, and they’re forever wondering, “Why aren’t there more people in this hole to help excavate and let more light in?”
Sometimes I wish I hadn’t taken the red pill. I wish I could un-know what I have come to know, because there is so much to know, and the more you know, the more you realise that you will never know it all, and it is exhausting. It reveals more hardship, horror and challenges than you may have realised are possible. It reveals to you how many others still opt for the blue pill.
But then someone speaks up, someone writes a testament or story that surprises you, somebody develops a new theory, invents something that makes a difference, and you realise how many more people have been taking red around you.
The red pill is just an opening of the mind. You soon after realise that there are many shades of red, and you can’t take them all at once. So, you pick your battles. You find others who have downed their own kinds of pills and unearthed insights at other plots. You divide the work. You step outside the Matrix, you weave in and out as you have to. And if you can, you bring someone with you each time.
For us storytellers, we swallow a red pill and make stories that more accurately reflect our society not only as it is, but as it could be for the better. As TV and Film writer Jane Espenson said, "If we can't write diversity into sci-fi, then what's the point? You don't create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones."