Thursday, June 15, 2017

Random Thought - Justine: The Kind of Black Woman the Wonder Woman Movie Needed

Among people who have seen (and for many of us, loved) the movie Wonder Woman, one thing that is noticeable is the lack of black women in substantive roles. The movie is, of course, centered on a woman, and so it gets kudos for that, and there are two men of color with fairly notable (albeit problematic in their own way) roles, but with the exception of a handful of Amazons, women of color are notably absent from the movie.

Note: There will be spoilers. You've been warned.

I have heard two responses to this lack of representation for women of color in the movie:

The first response is that the black women who do appear in the movie are important people. They are Amazon teachers or warriors, and at least one is an Amazonian Senator. These are clearly people of note in their society, and so black women should feel well-represented by these nods. The problem is that while they are clearly important in their own society, they are minor players in the story being told. Pointing out that a character is an Amazonian Senator doesn't really mean much if the sum total of her presence in the story is a single line in a single scene. There is a difference between being important in the fictional world the story is set within, and being important in the story set in the fictional world. None of the black Amazons in Wonder Woman are particularly important to the story.

Red Cross Workers in World War I
The second response is that the responder simply cannot imagine black women running around World War I era Europe. This, I think, is a sign of both a lack of imagination and a fair amount of historical illiteracy. There were people of color in Europe during World War I. In fact, there were a lot of them. To begin with, all of the combatant nations with colonial holdings drew upon the populace of those colonies to fill out the ranks of their armies. Hundreds of thousands of men from Africa and Asia fought and died on the battlefields of Western Europe. Not only that, a lot of black and Asian women also came to the war - as army nurses, Red Cross workers, and for a myriad of other reasons. There were also black women in Europe simply because that was where they lived. France, for example, was well entangled with places like Algeria, and there were a lot of people who had emigrated from there to France simply living in the country. On an interesting side note - getting the data on the demographic make-up of France is somewhat difficult due to an 1872 law that prohibits making a census that distinguishes between citizens based on race. That said, while we don't know its exact size, we do know that France had a population of African and Asian emigres in the World War I era, because we have records of their presence in the country.

The only reason that it is hard to imagine the presence of people of color in Europe during World War I is that history has obscured their presence, and has been aided in this task by media that has omitted them from books, films, television programs, and other artistic representations set in that era. They have essentially been erased from our cultural memory, and the act of saying "I can't imagine black women in World War I Europe" simply continues that erasure.

So, there were black women in Europe, and none of the black women who are actually in the movie are actually important to the story. The only question is how would one put a black female character into the movie in such a manner that she was a substantive character. This is just me throwing an idea against the wall and seeing how it might work, but I would insert such a character into the story just before the battle across No-Man's Land. In my opinion, one of the weaker elements of the story is the set up for Diana's charge into the German lines. Basically, the scene in the movie centers around a woman who is a refugee from a village across the battlefield huddled in a corner of a trench holding her baby. Diana talks to her, and she informs Diana that the Germans have seized her village, taken the villagers' possessions, and started using the remaining villagers as slave labor. Confronted with this, Trevor argues that Diana and their other companions need to stay the course and continue their mission, leaving the poor villagers to their fate. Diana rejects this and heads out to liberate the village.

This sequence is functional, but a little bit unsatisfying. Once the refugee village woman delivers her bit of exposition, she more or less vanishes from the narrative. After the fighting is over, there is a brief scene in which Diana, Trevor, Chief, Sameer, and Charlie bask in the glow of victory, have some beers, and dance (or rather, as Diana says, sway back and forth). The villagers never show up again, not even when the villainous Ludendorff fires poison gas into the village as a demonstration of the effectiveness of his new chemical concoction. The presence of villagers on the British side of the field also raises the question of how they got over there, and how long have the Germans occupied the village. As Trevor points out, the British regiment in that sector hadn't been able to make an inch of headway in a year, so the Germans had presumably occupied the village for that whole time. Further, how did the refugees cross No-Man's Land without getting killed? And so on.

Red Cross Drivers
in World War I
Here's how I would reset this scene: Instead of a random French woman, Diana, Trevor, and the rest come across a Red Cross nurse arguing with the British regimental commander. Like many Red Cross workers during the war, this woman is black, as are the other Red Cross personnel with her. To give her a name, we can call her Justine. She and her fellow workers had been working in the village providing relief to the civilians and were recently expelled by the Germans, who sent them across No-Man's Land under a white flag. The Germans tried to hide it, but Justine learned that the Germans were carting away villagers at the order of General Ludendorff to work on some secret project. Justine is arguing that the lives of the villagers are important and that the British should attack, while the British commander is demurring. Instead of having Trevor give a status report on the British troops, the British commander can. For her part, Justine can make the moral argument for helping the innocent that spurs Diana to make her stand.

That's a minor change, but the real meat of Justine's role in the movie comes after the village of Veld is liberated. Justine and her fellow nurses begin to care for the wounded of both sides and try to help the villagers. When Diana tells Justine what she knows about Ludendorff's plans, Justine makes the decision to help her. Because Justine has been in the area for an extended period of time, she has local contacts, and can use them to find out where Ludendorff is (which would have the side effect of eliminating the cringe-worthy "smoke signals" scene with Chief). Justine can also use her network of friends to get Diana and Trevor into the castle for Ludendorff's gala (this time eliminating the cringe-worthy scene where Sameer grovels his way through a guard post), possibly sneaking Trevor and Diana in through the kitchens or some other service entrance. Justine through this segment plays an active role in helping the heroes get to the places they need to be, and then returns to Veld.

Of course, Justine returns to Veld just in time for Ludendorff to hit the village with some poison gas shells. She and her fellow nurses can then try to evacuate people, getting some to safety, but perhaps at the cost of their own lives. One of the weaknesses of the movie as presented is that when Ludendorff kills off the people of Veld, it doesn't have a whole lot of impact, mostly because the villagers were never fleshed out as characters. If Justine is killed, or even just severely wounded, this sequence would have had far more impact on the audience. Have Diana find Justine just on the brink of death, and have Justine tell her that helping others is worth facing injury or death. If Justine doesn't die in the poison gas attack, she could be worked into the rest of the plot with too much difficulty, perhaps putting her as a thematic counterpoint to Lady Poison in the final battle sequence where Diana has to choose between love or rage. The end result would be a character who played a significant role in the movie, and could be a full realized, well-developed person on-screen.

So that's one idea. I'm sure there are others, many of which would probably be better than mine. The point here is that working a substantive black female character into Wonder Woman would not have been all that difficult. All the film makers needed to do was to decide to do it.

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