Movie Review: The Dead (2011)

Because I really wanted to like this picture, I’ll start with what I liked about The Dead. First, the African setting is fresh and interesting. Zombies have overrun North America and Europe with such regularity in movies it seems like it’s as predictable an event as hurricane season in August. Setting the film in Africa was original in the genre and ripe for deep social commentary that hasn’t necessarily been mined to death — at least in a horror milieu. I also thought the cinematography was beautiful. I imagine there are some places in the world where it’s nearly impossible to take an ugly picture; the Ghanaian desert may be one of those places. Finally, the effects were excellent. There seemed to be a very nice balance of practical and digital effects that were convincing and not distracting.

Sadly, now on to what I didn’t like: everything else. Without spending much time on the poor acting, terrible pacing, complete lack of character development, and nearly non-existent plot, I’ll focus on the single unforgivable thing without which, I could have overlooked every other failing of the picture. This movie possesses the potentially compelling story line of an AWOL African soldier on the road searching for his son, who has been picked up by a band of soldier/survivors and is now lost. Is he being turned into a child soldier? Is he safe? Has he become another zombie? We don’t know. We should want to know. But instead, The Dead follows the last bloody white man in Africa who turns out to be — wait for it — the African man’s (i.e., the subplot’s) only hope. I just want to pound my fists writing that sentence.

Why can’t we have African narratives about African people without having to throw in a token white American or Brit to take center stage instead and either save a (typically more interesting) African character or, more offensively, escape the wildness of the Dark Continent with his own humanity intact? Blood Diamond, I am looking at you. Last King of Scotland, I am looking at you. The Dead, I am looking at you!

[WARNING: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD; PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK]

I was dealing fairly well with this horrible trope through the first and second acts of the movie as it had more or less become a buddy road picture, with Brian, the white naval engineer, serving a role as the mechanic who can keep their only means of escape running while Daniel, the AWOL soldier, is the muscle who hews through crowds of the hungry dead without breaking a swe — well, everyone’s sweating, it’s hot. I like stories about characters from different backgrounds forced to cooperate to ensure their mutual survival. To indulge the Hollywood obsession with box office, there’s a person for white audiences to relate to (like we can’t do that with a person of color), and then there’s the guy with the interesting motivation and actual relatable goal. Fine. But wait. At the end of the second act, guess what happens. I bet you can’t guess. THE BLACK GUY DIES! In a picture set in AFRICA, the black guy still dies before the final reel! So now it’s up to Brian to save Daniel’s son (the symbol of the future of Africa and the world–and a character with no name of his own as far as I can tell). As a matter of fact, at the end, ALL of the black survivors die leaving only Brian and Daniel’s son to carry on.

[END OF SPOILERS]

Despite the presence of white people in Africa, I suspect there may be one or two compelling stories to be told entirely from black Africans’ perspectives — correct me if I am wrong. Hotel Rwanda comes to mind as a perfect example of a great film that didn’t have to put a white face on the story of black Africans and instead respected the audience enough to allow them to identify with the humanity of the relevant characters irrespective of race. (The most prominent white character was Nick Nolte’s, based loosely on Gen. Roméo Dallaire, and he was hardly in the movie.) Brilliant!

I can think of a bunch of good films that could have been great ones if they had shed their post-colonial white man’s burden bullshit and just been made about the human beings already in their respective settings — Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland, Dances With Wolves, and The Last Samurai immediately spring to mind — instead of providing a stand-in for white American moviegoers.

It all reminds me of a joke from Chappelle’s Show told by Paul Mooney:

Hollywood is crazy … First, they had The Mexican with Brad Pitt, then The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise. Well, I’ve written a movie, maybe they’ll produce it … It’s called The Last [Black Man]1 On Earth, starring Tom Hanks….

I can’t say it any better than that. Two disappointed stars (for pretty cinematography and not making a completely offensive film) out of six.

1 Yes, I am a chickenshit. It’s an entirely different post about how, if we’re going to speak intelligently about the history or power of any word, we should at least be able to utter the actual word in the context of that particular discourse (and not use baby-talk like “enword” or “effword”) — but that is not the topic I’m addressing here, so you get a substitution. The joke is still funny without the word that Paul Mooney himself has disowned.

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~ by poǝןɔɐɯ uǝʞɔɐɹq on 13/03/2012.

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