Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Alienating Identification: Black Identity in the Brother from Another Planet and I Am Legend

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Alienating Identification: Black Identity in the Brother from Another Planet and I Am Legend

Article excerpt

In both 1984 and 2007, a lone black protagonist faced an unfamiliar New York. One saw Harlem through alien eyes, the other encountered alien landscapes. Both of them complicate representations of black identity in their specific relationships to social and historical contexts. In Reagan-era The Brother from Another Planet (Sayles US 1984), sf icons and conventions function to destabilise codes of black representation and lend insight into the fantastic aspects of racial identity. In contrast, while I Am Legend (Lawrence US 2007) does raise questions about the politics of black identity, it ultimately reinforces the dominant narratives about black identity unsettled by other black speculative fictions. Its casting of Will Smith as the last man on Earth resonates in a political climate where blackness has paradoxically become a contested site of both belonging and exclusion, with political figures such as Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama required to manage black identity in the interests of American nationalism. Such contemporary African American icons represent a patriotically multicultural future in which blackness can be divorced from its historical associations with violent injustice. I Am Legend exemplifies and complicates this 'colourless' American nationalism.

The term 'alienation' has a specific relationship to sf and fantasy, genres which set out to alienate viewers and readers from their own worlds and thus provide critical perspectives on familiar yet exotic environments, dimensions or futures. In psychoanalytic theory, the term also describes a subject's relationship to his or her psyche and the outside world, and film theorists, from Christian Metz onwards, have used the oscillation between identification and alienation to theorise the subject's response to projected images. In Marxist theory, 'alienation' describes the separation of the worker under capital from the products of his or her labour, and from other humans, the natural world and the self. The most extreme example of this kind of alienation is racialised slavery, whose legacy Thomas Holt describes in terms of multiple alienations:

Blacks are the builders of the economic infrastructure, yet dispossessed of its fruits; creators of one of its truly original native cultures, in story and song, yet culturally demeaned and maligned; faithful adherents to the nation's basic ideals and values, yet shunned, abused and stigmatized as if an alien people. (303; my emphasis)

Reading narratives of race and identity through these theories of alienation can disrupt dominant ideologies of race and ethnicity and encourage reconsideration of race as an alienated/alienating object.

The Brother from Another Planet: two kinds of alienation

The Brother from Another Planet traverses the Harlem landscape from the perspective of Brother (Joe Morton), a crash-landed, mute alien who looks just like an African American, has a talent for fixing electronics and is pursued by two extraterrestrial Men in Black (John Sayles and David Strathairn). The figure of the alien, a powerful metaphor for different kinds of disenfranchisement, makes sf a testing ground for issues of identity. In most sf films, the alien represents a threat to and/or the displacement of racial difference onto species difference (see Bernardi; Greene; Sobchack). Brother reverses the direction of this displacement: its alien is a black man, whose alienation is compounded by Harlem's unfamiliar landscape (Bould 87).

Mark Bould argues that Brother foregrounds commodity culture and the commodification of desire as the foundation of African American oppression, articulating the film's postmodern landscape of 'curious and beautiful' trash (Sobchack 263) as a pointed critique of the capitalist condition. Made during the Reagan-Bush administration, its activation of urban space and of sciencefictional and Marxist versions of alienation speaks to the actual alienation and disenfranchisement of black Americans, the poor and inner-city communities. …

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