Snowpiercer and 'the one white dude to rule them all'
Warning: Contains spoilers
Okay: you’re on a train. It’s the last train in the world and the world is covered in ice. An evil overlord rules the train with an iron fist and the leader of your scrappy rebellion just died, so who do you pick to be your new leader – the young Asian woman with clairvoyant abilities, her middle-aged father that knows all the codes to unlock train security systems and kicks bad guy ass, the level-headed black woman that’s trying to find her son, or the unstable white dude that ate people when times got tough?
This problem confronts the characters halfway through the new movie Snowpiercer, and the film doesn’t waste a second of footage debating before the white dude is unceremoniously picked to be the new fearless leader. The moment happens without even a hint of irony or self-awareness. Snowpiercer justifies this singular, nonsensical logic jump by letting us know over and over that people think Curtis should be running things, never mind that he’s guilt-ridden, moody, impulsive and…a reformed cannibal.
Snowpiercer is essentially Children of Men on a train. And while more conservative-leaning visions of the future imagine a police state to curb the chaos of mob mentality, these attempts at subversive narrative fall in the tradition of 1984 and Brazil: The inherently corrupt machinery of the state is the ultimate antagonist. In this realm, Snowpiercer does an admirable job bringing complexity and nuance to the problem of complicity between radical groups and the establishment they’re supposedly working against. It’s an exciting movie with epic battles, and the stratified world of the last train on Earth is messy, full of cutthroat political wrangling and gut-wrenchingly unfair.
But both Children of Men and Snowpiercer come crashing down to almost identical final moments. When the smoke clears and the countless bodies are carted off, what we’re left with is the same take-away: Bearded white dude saves humanity, in both cases represented by a woman and a child of color, both helpless and in need of saving, at the cost of his own life.
Back in college, when I’d be one of the few people of color in anti-war protest meetings, the white organizers would ask me: “Why do so few people of color come to our events?” Never did they turn the question in on themselves, never did they interrogate how their own actions upheld white supremacy even amidst their rhetoric of Peace and Freedom. And why would they? In the mainstream liberal model of activism, a divinely-anointed white man with no particular skills or job credentials is elevated to the status of One and Only simply by virtue of existing. Within this fantasy, we can glimpse the ongoing failure of the mainstream American left to truly confront institutional/interpersonal racism in any way beyond political maneuvering. Indeed, the trope holds even when the gaze is cast backwards: what did the film Lincoln show us if not the same bearded white savior, nobly giving his life to save the poor black masses amidst a different kind of apocalypse?
Let’s return to that moment on the train: when Tanya, Snowpiercer’s lone black woman, turns her tear-stained face to Curtis and informs him, inexplicably, that he must lead them now, the movie tells an entire story, apparently unintentionally, within just a few seconds. It’s the story of missed opportunities, self-absorption and an ongoing savior complex. It’s the story of silenced voices, untold histories, movements torn to shreds because of ego, unchecked privilege and infighting. The missed opportunity here is a narrative one as well: Imagine if Snowpiercer, which Korean director Bong Joon-ho based on the French graphic novel La Transperceneige, deviated from the singular narrative that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously warned us about. Imagine if the desperate rebels paused and elevated Tanya to leadership instead of Curtis. Snowpiercer would’ve become something truly subversive, a story some of us have been trying to tell for a very long time.