Mad Max: Fury Road and the Glaring Whiteness of Post-Apocalyptic Films

Will people of color ever make it to the end of the world?

Nashwa KhanMay 23, 2015

Still from Mad Max: Fury Road. (Warner Bros)

Mad Max: Fury Road is mak­ing waves as a must-see fem­i­nist” film, large­ly in reac­tion to calls for a boy­cott by so-called men’s rights activists (MRAs) based on analy­ses such as “[Char­l­ize] Theron sure talked a lot… Nobody barks orders to Mad Max.” In a desire to pro­tect and invest in any­thing MRAs don’t like, many women and male fem­i­nist allies raced to theaters.

Although most of our world is not white, the end of the world is always so. The math does not add up.

As Eileen Jones notes, when you actu­al­ly look for the fem­i­nist plot ele­ments in Fury Road, there’s not much there. How­ev­er, there’s anoth­er thing miss­ing in Fury Road: peo­ple of col­or. Despite being set in Aus­tralia — his­tor­i­cal­ly an Abo­rig­i­nal coun­try — and filmed in Namib­ia, the world of Fury Road is eeri­ly white. Out of 15 char­ac­ters list­ed in the open­ing cred­its, only two are vis­i­bly peo­ple of col­or: Toast the Know­ing, played by Zoe Kravitz (who is bira­cial, Black and Ashke­nazi Jew), and Chee­do the Frag­ile, played by Court­ney Eaton (who, accord­ing to Aus­tralian tabloid The Sun­day Times, cred­its her father with her Cau­casian looks,” but has Maori, Pacif­ic Islander and Chi­nese lin­eage). Nei­ther held a lead role, and some audi­ences seem to have missed that Eaton was non-white, cit­ing Kravitz as the only iden­ti­fi­able woman of color.

By con­trast, Fury Road offers vari­ety of white men, some tall, some thin, some not so thin, and a posse of beau­ti­ful cis­gen­der white women who serve as breed­ers” — sex­u­al and repro­duc­tive slaves — for the cult leader of this cor­ner of the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic world, Immor­tan Joe. The effect is the aes­thet­ic of a Chanel run­way, with one or two women of col­or for fla­vor. Many have claimed the film put women ahead — but which women? Cer­tain­ly not women who are very vis­i­bly racial­ized through curves and fea­tures. Eth­ni­cal­ly ambigu­ous” seems to be the only type of racial­ized woman who makes it to the end of the world.

Kravitz and Eaton’s char­ac­ters do sur­vive the film, and hav­ing a per­son of col­or stand­ing at the end makes Fury Road a rare uni­corn with­in the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic genre. But that’s a very low bar.

Per­haps we shouldn’t so sur­prised at the white­ness of Fury Road, giv­en the con­sul­tant that the direc­tor chose: Vagi­na Mono­logues cre­ator Eve Ensler, who has been sub­ject to many crit­i­cisms around her deal­ings with women of col­or. For exam­ple, she timed her V‑Day, a day of action to end vio­lence against women, to coin­cide with The Glob­al Day to Hon­or Miss­ing and Mur­dered Indige­nous Women, with­out acknowl­edg­ing the oth­er cam­paign. She has also been crit­i­cized for appro­pri­at­ing the trau­ma faced by Con­golese women for her own cam­paign.

Anoth­er con­sul­tant on the film is noto­ri­ous­ly insen­si­tive about race: com­ic book illus­tra­tor Bren­dan McCarthy who has drawn crit­i­cism for his trope‑y por­tray­als of black char­ac­ters in Spi­der-Man comics and his Face­book com­ments that seemed to min­i­mize the death of Trayvon Martin.

The lazy inser­tion of one or two peo­ple of col­or as a way to attain diver­si­ty” to sat­is­fy pro­gres­sive audi­ences is irri­tat­ing, but appar­ent­ly effec­tive. A num­ber of white women who are very invest­ed in Fury Road being fem­i­nist and pro­gres­sive have cham­pi­oned its diver­si­ty on social media. One much-shared Tum­blr post by Jeanne the Fan­Girl, a Poly­ne­sian fem­i­nist, cites the Maori her­itage of Eaton and anoth­er actor, Megan Gale — who plays The Valkyrie, a matri­ar­chal tribe mem­ber — as evi­dence that the film tells a sto­ry dis­man­tling of colo­nial oppres­sion where indige­nous women play key roles in the fight and future of the world.” Gale is not even list­ed in the open­ing cred­its, but I guess we should take crumbs because food is so scarce in post-apoc­a­lyp­tic worlds.

Gale has said she is a small per­cent­age” Maori. But the movie nev­er men­tions that these two women are Maori, mak­ing Jeanne the FanGirl’s read­ing feel like a reach. The inclu­sion of Eaton and Gale does­n’t serve to make the world of the film less white, just to appease crit­ics. Posts like this by allies derail a real con­ver­sa­tion about why the dark­est peo­ple with no Euro­cen­tric fea­tures nev­er make it to the end of the world.

As a racial­ized woman with indige­nous lin­eage, as well as two par­ents who are peo­ple of col­or, I am drained from watch­ing my peo­ple who are more vis­i­bly indige­nous or racial­ized get pushed to the margins.

At this point, the blar­ing white­ness of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic in pop­u­lar cul­ture is some­thing I have become numb to. I real­ized as a child that film fans would remain more con­cerned with issues like, say, the lack of feath­ers on dinosaurs, than with all-white or major­i­ty-white cast­ing. Although most of our world is not white, the end of the world is always so. The math does not add up.

Take a look beyond Fury Road to the pop­u­lar zom­bie-apoc­a­lypse tele­vi­sion show The Walk­ing Dead. a show that has been giv­en a rib­bing for its ongo­ing inabil­i­ty to keep more than one black man alive at a time. It seems our num­bers have to be capped. I still am sleuthing as to why — maybe there are not enough spices in the rations?

Film­mak­ers even go out of their way to whiten the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scape: Kravitz also played one of the only peo­ple of col­or in the film Diver­gent, set in Chica­go — a city that is very diverse — and based on a book by Veron­i­ca Roth that had anoth­er major char­ac­ter of col­or, who was cut from the film. Are peo­ple of col­or unwor­thy of the end of the world? Is it pre­sumed we would not cope well? Do peo­ple assume we need a rice cook­er or wouldn’t eat road­kill? Or is it sim­ply that our bod­ies are so eas­i­ly disposable?

Wit­ness­ing white fem­i­nists find ways to make them­selves feel bet­ter about this lack of diver­si­ty in a movie they real­ly want to love points to a larg­er prob­lem. A big part of fem­i­nism is race, but these self-imposed blind­ers sug­gest that as long as a movie appeas­es white fem­i­nists, they will not ques­tion in sol­i­dar­i­ty why we women of col­or are absent.

Sure we may have sur­vived colo­nial­ism and impe­ri­al­ism, but appar­ent­ly we aren’t con­sid­ered ready for this apoc­a­lypse stuff. It could be the canned food or lack of hot plates; I am still work­ing that one out. 

Nash­wa Khan iden­ti­fies as South Asian/​African Dias­po­ra and is cur­rent­ly study­ing cre­ative writ­ing at Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and Addic­tions Coun­selling at McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty. She holds a strong inter­est in nar­ra­tive med­i­cine and cul­tur­al com­pe­ten­cy. You can usu­al­ly find her rant­i­ng on twit­ter about pop cul­ture, health and race all inter­twin­ing. Feel free to tweet her @nashwakay.
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