A New Kind of Representation: Blade Runner 2049
This article contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.
When I walked out of the theater after seeing Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 on opening day last year, I felt like I had been hit across the head with a cinderblock. It was dizzyingly beautiful, deliberately mystifying in ways few mainstream blockbuster films are, and not only paid homage to its predecessor, but also genuinely comprehended and expanded upon its central themes. But, I felt like I hadn’t absorbed everything first go around, so the day after, I did something I’ve never done, I went and saw the movie again. And, as is the sign of any great movie, I found the hooks I was throwing out digging into the material in interesting, substantial ways on a repeat viewing. But, it wasn’t until three months later, after a third viewing of Villeneuve’s sci-fi behemoth that I truly understood why this film resonated so deeply with me.
I am mixed race. My mother is South Asian and my father is White. I’ve always firmly felt that being mixed race means having ownership over both – or all – of your racial identities. It means being able to feel like you can be South Asian without compromising your White identity and being White without compromising your South Asian identity. Though I would like to say this experience of balancing identity has been simple, the truth is: it hasn’t. This isn’t to say I’ve ever had any doubts, personally, about my ability to inhabit both identities seamlessly; I do that everyday by simply existing. But, the reality of being mixed means – sometimes – never feeling like others truly see you as anything other than one – and only one – of your racial identities. The tired qualifying refrain, “you’re not really South Asian” or “you’re not really White” would be more infuriating if I wasn’t so damn sick of hearing it. The sad and absurd reality of being mixed sometimes means that by inhabiting multiple racial identities at once, you somehow manage to disqualify yourself from inhabiting any of those identities – at least in the eyes of some.
So, cue Blade Runner 2049. I was giving the film a third watch, three months after its release and upon reaching Officer K’s first meeting with Ana, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. 2049 sets up its inciting incident – a hushed meeting between Officer K and his superior Lt. Joshi – as a ticking time bomb which could incite violent chaos between replicants and humans, as Lt. Joshi puts it, in a sentiment that echoes the apocalyptic vision of miscegenation in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, “There is a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there is no wall and you’ve bought yourself a war…or a slaughter…” and later, simply, “This breaks the world, K.” The first child born from a replicant and a human – in Lt. Joshi’s eyes – totally undermines the power of the state. It dismantles the illusion of difference between replicants and humans (read: races, as has been the long-established metaphor of the series) by establishing their lack of speciation. So, when, on a re-watch, I came to the scene between Ana and K, knowing that Ana was indeed, the real child of Deckard and Rachel, I couldn’t help but read every aspect of her existence as the individual that threatens to “dismantle the wall between kind” as a metaphor for a mixed race individual.
Ana lives a sad, exploited life of solitude. She lives in a sterile, glass cage at a memory clinic where she spins away years crafting memories that feel “authentic” because “if you have authentic memories you have real human responses…” Her life is one of creating the building blocks of identity – memory, ironic given that her identity as a mixed individual is quarantined and, eventually, meant to be expunged once the state has used up her work. The drab concrete walls that surround her like a tomb feel distinctly similar, aesthetically, to the walls that cage in neo-Los Angeles and the walls that comprise the monolithic LAPD headquarters in the heart of the city. And her small, live-in cell is homogenized texturally, in terms of its grey hue, and even in its circular structure save for a small visiting window. It is as though, terrified of what her heterogeneous identities mean for its power, the state hopes to force a homogeneity on Ana through osmosis of her environment.
But, what moved me the most about this scene – and, indeed, what rung so perfectly and crystallinely true to my experience as a mixed person – was Ana’s profound, cathartic, and quiet eruption of emotion upon simply seeing another person who seemed to share her isolation and confusion. In a heartbreakingly pitch-perfect exclamation, Carla Juri’s Ana tells K, “Oh, that’s the most interesting thing I’ve been offered to help work on in ages” after wiping a stray tear from her eye. Her distinct status as the first of her kind only cements her isolation from a world that, depending on the kind – replicant or human – sees her as a token beacon of hope or a threat to decades of uncontested rule over a hierarchy of kind. Her confinement is not only the physical manifestation of the isolation of never truly fitting any racial category quite neatly, but also the manifestation of a feeling of a system of two distinct identities forcing her to commit to one and only one identity.
You only really notice the profound dearth of stories about mixed individuals when you go looking for it. But once you see it, it’s hard to not notice. Though mixed relationships are, thankfully, becoming far more commonplace in mainstream and independent American film (thanks The Big Sick, Paterson, Get Out, and Columbus) and these should be celebrated for the more accurate and holistic representation of the world as is that they are, stories of mixed individuals are few and far between. And still fewer are the stories that examine a mixed individual and deal with her or his mixed identity in a substantial way. So, for all the flaws in representation that Blade Runner 2049 may have in dealing with people of color and women, maybe more filmmakers should take a page from Hampton Fancher and Denis Villeneuve’s handbook and craft intelligent and engaging stories about how our society comes to terms with the mixture of identities in ways that don’t reductively see the mixed individual as a dissolution of racial identities, but rather as a confluence of identities that ought to be celebrated and embraced.