*This post contains spoilers of “The Girl With All The Gifts”, “The Birth of a Nation”, and “Get Out”*
As someone who has studied and worked in film and television for most of my professional life, I have resigned myself to a set of facts: no film made for mass audiences is truly (or at least fully) an endorsement of Black liberation, and the ending to any film that claims to be such an endorsement will best reveal this truth.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation loses any revolutionary power it might have had remaining when the young slave who betrayed Nat Turner is time-morphed into a soldier in the Civil War at the end (admittedly, this came after the film had already become a rapey trainwreck). Not only does this random storyline make a false equivalence between state-sanctioned war and slave rebellions against the state, it also supports redemptive possibilities for America and the lie that those who seek to undermine causes for Black liberation will eventually and naturally see the light.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out had to scrap a “depressing” alternate ending in which the main character chooses to kill his former white lover and, rather than being saved by his friend after escaping the racist house of horrors where his lover trapped him, he is arrested and sentenced to life in prison––a far more realistic scenario.
The ending that was chosen instead, where the main character cannot go through with killing his evil girlfriend and is whisked away to a happily ever after following his escape, allows for the white liberal audience to laugh along with the story (after having not implicated themselves to begin with, as Michael Dumas points out), again supporting the lie that there is a quick and natural solution to the problem of anti-Blackness that does not require much work.
But there are some films, even mainstream ones, that do some important work, often unintentionally––or at least work that we as Black people looking to build freer futures can learn something from. Many times, the effectiveness of this work depends on the audience. As Sherronda Brown illuminates, it could be argued that Get Out’s powerful invocation of Drapetomania, the pathologization of slaves trying to escape from the plantation, and bringing this concept into slavery’s afterlife is only something a Black audience might recognize, even as Peele explains the film was meant to “teach” white audiences and even as white audiences love it because of how not challenging it is to their social position.
But perhaps the most powerful work I’ve seen a film do recently was by “The Girl With All The Gifts,” a British post-apocalyptic zombie thriller that was released last year but has just started streaming on Amazon. Based on a novel by M.R. Carey of the same name, “The Girl With All The Gifts” follows the story of a young girl named Melanie who is kept strapped to a chair along with other children who are treated as if they are dangerous beasts (and referred to only as “freakin’ abortions”) while being taught and tested by a teacher named Miss Justineau.
We later learn that Melanie, played by a young Black actress, Sennia Nannua, and the other children are the offspring of “hungries,” zombified beings who were infected while pregnant. Unlike their zombie parents, Melanie and her peers are conscious, though they still carry the fungus that causes zombification. If allowed to become too hungry or exposed to the direct smell of humans, they are unable to hold in their violent desire for human flesh just like hungries.
After a series of events, the compound in which the children are being imprisoned and tested is overrun by hungries. Melanie, Justinaeu, a scientist working on the vaccine, and a few military personnel escape. Over time, the human characters get to know and trust Melanie, and the young zombie child must be set free from time to time to do things humans can’t do, like walk among the hungries to forage for food and ensure that the path safe for humans. Despite their evolving amicable relationship with Melanie, the goal of the humans remains the same: to create a vaccine for the disease and eventually eliminate the hungries and their fungus carrying offspring.
Because I am so used to humanity being granted a sanctity it does not deserve, I fully expected Melanie, who is shown to be full of love for Miss Justinaeu, to sacrifice herself for her human captors. The devastation wreaked by the hungries is indeed depressingly catastrophic, and like in most zombie thrillers, you primed to root for the humans and their survival.
However, “The Girl With All The Gifts” does something new and profound.
At the end, when Melanie is given the choice to die for the sake of a vaccine, she asks the scientist a final question: whether or not she believes Melanie and the other children are alive and conscious. The scientist answers yes, to which Melanie responds, “why should we have to die for you to live?” Before running off and setting thousands of zombie fungus-carrying pods on fire so that they can release the fungus and infect the rest of human civilization with the disease.
In essence, Melanie chooses to destroy the world rather than give herself to it, something another human character who watches her set the pods ablaze points out. But Melanie powerfully reframes his statement. This isn’t the end of the world, this is just the end of their world, the human world. As shown in the very end, Melanie fully plans to build a better one within which her and the other zombie children are safe.
Flipping the script on the zombie trope in this way is important enough within the context of anti-Black racism on its own. As Sherronda Brown explains, “the early concept of the zombie as a cinematic monster indelibly links zombification with Blackness, constructing them both as subhumans to be rightfully enslaved.”
But the fact that Melanie is a Black girl herself creates a whole new layer.
When juxtaposed with the argument put forth by some Afro-pessimists that humanity is reliant upon the subjection and enslavement of Black people, Melanie’s refusal of humanity is in clear contrast to what we are taught about Black people’s possibilities. We, the living dead in America (for what else but death is a life that doesn’t #matter?) are told that we can only try (and always fail) to become more human or sacrifice ourselves and our communities for the continuation of human society. This is the idea behind Black people who understand the police are inherently anti-Black still being unable to fathom a world after the abolition of police, for example.
In the book, which I have yet to read, Melanie is white and her teacher, Miss Justinaeu, is Black. In the film, those roles are reversed. I am not sure the filmmakers made this switch to purposefully reinforce ideas of Black revolution. Indeed, the close-up of Miss Justinaeu, crying as she is trapped in a tiny room as the last human being Melanie keeps alive at the end (for the purpose of continuing to teach the other zombie children), seems to be included to invoke a feeling of sympathy. White women are always the most ideal victims. If one sympathizes with Justinaeu, as a white audience might, and as I believe was intended, the film becomes less a triumph and more a tragedy.
This is the tragedy we are told would happen if Black folks really were to destroy the world and humanity for our own sakes. We don’t have the tools to police ourselves, or we are “too good” to be so “heartless”, or we don’t need saving in the first place because eventually things will naturally work out if we only are a bit more patient or respectable. Interpreting this as a tragedy tells us that Melanie should have waited for a way to save herself and the humans, even if there was no promise of that way ever existing. Even if waiting meant passing up just saving herself. Even if the humans had no interest in compromising in return.
We are not white audiences.It is time we stop pretending as if we need them. It is time a Black girl destroyed the world, destroyed humanity, destroyed society to save herself. And it is time we cheered them on when they try and succeed.