Thursday, July 31, 2008
On "Hellboy" as a Vehicle for Race Relations
I just got home from watching "Hellboy II: the Golden Army," and - oddly enough - I find myself thinking about race. I find myself thinking about this fantasy/scifi/action movie as an allegory for race relations in the United States. Do I think that was the intention? Not likely.* But does it work? Absolutely.
This may seem like a pretty strange post to have on this particular blog, but you'll see where I'm going with this soon enough.
For those out there with no idea what this movie is about, I will give as brief of a synopsis as I can (without ruining the film).
In a nutshell, "Hellboy" is the offspring of the devil. He was found as a baby by the U.S. army (to prevent Nazis from getting him) in World War II. Since that time, he has become a "good guy" and serves the FBI as a member of an elite (and non-human, or super-human) task force charged with saving humankind from all things alien or fantastical. On this task force are his girlfriend (a human woman who catches fire when angry) and "Abe," a sort of fish-man with psychic abilities.
Whoo! Wondering where race is going to come in yet? Soon. In "Hellboy II," the basic plot is that there was a battle thousands of years ago between humans and non-humans (elves, trolls, and beyond). It was brutal (human-caused), but it ended with a truce, where humans promised to take care of the natural earth as part of the deal.
Okay - truce violated, there's about to be another war by the - until now - pride-swallowing non-humans vs. the humans. Hellboy and his gang find themselves protecting the human side.
Right right. Now here comes the racial undertones (to me). Throughout the film, Hellboy and his friends keep finding themselves the subject of random hate and disrespect from the "normal" humans that they are trying to protect. At one point, Hellboy saves a baby and all sorts of random New Yorkers from a nature-god, only to have the people accuse him of trying to hurt the baby, the police try to arrest him, etc.
Later, when Hellboy is with his crew in the secret underworld of non-humans - where all sorts of strange creatures abound - he tells his girlfriend, "You would love it here - nobody stares at us at all, we just blend right in."
Now you see where I'm going with the race thing? Throughout, Hellboy is constantly reminded by the (ambiguously) bad guy that he's playing for the wrong side (the humans) - that they don't even like him. And the movie is gray enough that there's no point where - as an audience member - I found myself overwhelmingly rooting for the human side. In fact, the movie is set up in a way such that - basically - humans kind of deserve annihilation.
It was interesting, especially for an action movie - a sort of family movie, really - a genre that doesn't really specify in ambiguity and gray areas.
The scene with the baby made me think of how often non-white folks (black, especially) find themselves in a position where their good intentions are mistaken, in fear, by white folks. How easily cops will assume that they are the "bad guys." The regular references to how out of place the heroes feel amongst the people they are trying to help. How good it feels for them when they no longer stand out. And the whole concept of "race-traitors" - fighting for the side that would hold them down. And the flip - those on the non-majority side that feel cornered, with no other option but violence (or war) to set things straight.
Of course, I imagine few people came out of this fun, sometimes funny, action-adventure with racial struggle on their mind. The "hero-as-loner/outsider" subplot is not new to movies (or any other sort of story). But something about this one struck me differently than others. It just seems that superhero movies are such a great vehicle for addressing human intolerance for each other. How fear and the unknown turn to hatred so easily (and predictably). And it was nice to see that angle pursued in a blockbuster summer movie without it being tied up in a neat little bow at the end.
Because, at the end of the film - let's just say it doesn't leave us with a final message of "the human side is right." We are very intentionally guided to feel for the "bad guy" at the end. And we are also left with a bad taste for the full humans on the heroes' "side."
And I appreciate that. Again - I don't know how many people will take what I did from this film - but I find it hopeful that a director (Guillermo del Toro, of "Pan's Labyrinth" fame) of clout in Hollywood was able to sneak this message into his film. Maybe it will latch on to its viewers' sub-consciousnesses and wreak some thoughtful havoc.
Now wouldn't that be something? The media brainwashing us to think more.
Here's to future big-budget movies taking their audiences into the gray area - and to the interesting changes that could come as a result.
* Off the top of my head, there is no obvious actor of color in the entire film, so maybe I give the director far too much credit.