‘Thor: Ragnarok’ through a Black and Indigenous post-colonial lens
White people are afraid of ceasing to exist without their empire... They are terrified of being without their Asgard.
by Briana L. Ureña-Ravelo
Warning: Spoilers up ahead!
After months of anticipation, I finally saw Thor: Ragnarok and I was not in the least bit disappointed. Taika Waititi is the Indigenous Maori director, writer, actor, and comedian who made sure Indigenous people, jargon, humor, culture, and anti-colonial messaging was prominent throughout the movie, and who made sure to hire Native people to work on the film as well. The movie is, as expected, doing swimmingly. As of press date, it has made over $121 Million in the US box office.
As a Jewish Indigenous man, Waititi is intimately familiar with the narrative of displacement and preserving identity in the midst of land and nation-loss that Thor: Ragnarok is thoroughly imbued with. His character in the film, Korg, takes a very calm and knowing approach to his reality of being an enslaved fighter on a foreign planet, not out of defeat, but rather out of his faith in his ability to survive it all.
He, too, knows deep loss of identity and home, yet remains steadfastly Maori throughout, even as he is enslaved and forced to fight or die for the entertainment of his colonizers. When he is freed, he then joins a new nation in their journey to find a new home after their own displacement. Korg’s Maori self and sense of humor helps to carry the Indigenous narratives throughout the movie.
That said, it is still largely a Hollywood Blockbuster littered with anti-colonial stories of resistance and survivance that is only allowed to be told when white leads or, at best, supernatural/otherworldly faces are affixed onto them. We have made progress with having more say in better storytelling that goes beyond shallow tokenism and superficially diversifying movies with (certain) people of color, but the fact that we often still have to Trojan horse our stories in this manner is frustrating.
As much as I adore Ragnarok and appreciate all of the anti-colonialist politics within it (including a joke referring to prison labor as modern-day slavery) and loved hearing and seeing Maori faces and culture throughout, I still dream of a narrative world wherein people of color are the ones at the forefront of our own stories. (Why, yes, I am counting down to when Black Panther hits theaters, how did you know!?)
This is why I love Valkyrie so much, a queer Afro-Latina of Black and Indigenous ancestry. I have the same love for Heimdall, played by possibly the world’s most handsome man, West African Idris Elba. Of the entire cast, they were the only players who were allowed to fully embody their own anti-colonial resistance narratives that do not have to be told through white (or alien) masks.
Portrayed by ineffable Tessa Thompson, Valkyrie bursts onto the scene crude, frank, and unrepentant. She is completely indifferent to Thor’s plight, having been thrust from Asgard after battling Hela, then trapped and sold into slavery herself. Thor gives his “I Want You” patriotic call to rally troops to help him regain his rightful place on the Asgardian throne after Odin’s apparent death (though, he would have us believe that it is only about saving Asgard from Hela), and Valkyrie sees straight through his self-serving bullshit.
Initially, she refuses to help him or even sympathize in the slightest. Thor approaches her, thinking only of himself, and attempts to use the storied duty Valkyrie has in order to serve Asgard for his own benefit. He never once considers that Valkyrie has already sacrificed her everything for Asgard, which gave her nothing in return.
To risk your life for a nation that acted recklessly in the first place (thanks for nothing, Odin), and for which sacrificing yourself did not serve or save you, is the epitome of a Black experience. Of course, Thor does not understand any of this. Instead, he looks at Valkyrie and her refusal of his “I’m being oppressed for the first time, help me” crisis with a child-like cluelessness and self-victimizing anger.
Valkyrie’s face for the first half of the movie drips with so much obvious disdain every time she sees Thor, and I live for it. I identify with her exasperation and would never fault her for not wanting to help him. Thor is afraid of something Valkyrie, both in her mythological role and as a diasporic African and Indigenous woman, has already experienced: immense loss, displacement, death, erasure, pain. This brings him panic. Thor has never had to experience a loss of culture and position. It was assumed that he would have these things forever.
Meanwhile, if Valkyrie’s eyebrows alone could talk, they’d say, “Yeah dude, I get it. We’ve been dealing with this bullshit for centuries. I know what it feels like to have a despot saunter in, claim your land as theirs, displace the original kingdom, re-interpret its history, start to enslave and slaughter its people en masse, and then have to sacrifice everything to fight them and not get so much as a ‘thank you’ after the fact… I’m getting a drink.”
Thor embodies many of the current behaviors and anxieties of white people across our world. One of the unspoken things about whiteness is that white people, white gentiles specifically, don’t think they exist outside of whiteness, and all the things it has claimed as its own (most stolen, exploited, inherited through no effort) over the centuries. Inherent to a colonial mindset, is an inability to think creatively, a need paint everything with their basic boring colonizer brush.
They cannot envision a world outside of those lands and spoils, and believe that their colonial world is, and always has been, forever. They superimpose whiteness and homeland retroactively, which is why many white supremacists try to claim ancient Greek civilization, pre-Roman Scandinavian culture, and even Egypt as white to perpetuate that idea that their colonial world has been around for forever and, thus, must continue to exist in the future. How dangerous and violent this world has been to the people it has colonized is of no concern.
White people are afraid of ceasing to exist without their empire, without the riches, plunders, and benefits of whiteness. They are terrified of not being able to live post-white supremacy, of being without their Asgard, and even often call upon people of color to help them protect their colonial capitalist world.
But Diasporic Africans are hundreds of years ahead of them in these experiences of loss, and at their hands no less. We are post-country, post-nation, post-tribe, post-land, post-language, even post-bodies/consciousness—having been stolen and exploited by them. Still, we move and live. We have resisted, we have built, we have thrived. We are here. Our bodies contain within themselves memories, land, language, history, country, roots, and home, and our roots are everywhere. We have little interest in sustaining a corrupt, anti-Black sinking ship, but rather are prefigurative geniuses at the forefront of hustling and inventing different, better opportunities and outcomes for our communities and others’.
At a visiting artist lecture with Anishinaabe artist and filmmaker Adam Khalil which I recently attended, Khalil talked about the theory that Indigenous peoples have experienced and are currently living in the apocalypse—existing in a world after the death and destruction of their own—having survived it creatively and brilliantly intact. Thus, Indigenous peoples are the most equipped to lead us in a future world—post-white supremacy, post-capitalism, post-colonialism.
I argue that diasporic Africans, too, are survivors of the apocalypse. Having lived through the Middle Passage, slavery, racial caste, language and cultural destruction and loss, land and nation loss, assimilation, abuse, all the ages of discrimination and de facto and de jure white supremacy in all the lands we were brought to, and so much more, diasporic Africans have influenced and supported Indigenous survivance as well.
We too can lead in this new post-colonial world. Black rebellion, abolition, resistance, and Afro-futurism has existed as an example to many other colonized communities, including homeland African and non-Black Indigenous ones. Black resistance continues to shape and inspire movements and the people within them to envision a world after this one. Too many Odins have made a mess of things in the history of this world, and we are sick of dying to preserve a place that was never meant for us.
For this reason it’s powerfully significant that Valkyrie and Heimdall, Bifröst protector and Asgard’s Moses lead Thor, Loki, and the people of Asgard through Ragnarok into the shaky, but hopeful future that they know is possible because it sings in their blood. Thor would not have been able to envision this world if not for Valkyrie and Heimdall’s leadership and faith in Asgard, despite the exploitative and violent mishaps of its ruling patriarchs. And Asgard is all the better for their Black and Indigrnous Futuristic realness guiding them through it.
I look forward to our own decolonial post-Ragnarok future, led and crafted by Black and Indigenous communities who will create a better world for all of us.
Briana L. Ureña-Ravelo. Writer. Community organizer. Errant punk. Ne’er do well. Afro-Dominicana. High Hex Femme.
A version of this essay was originally published on her Medium blog.