| Arts & Culture
Movies How to Survive a Disaster Movie: Be White. Speak English.
When Americans consume media that privileges white survival, what does it mean for which disasters earn our attention, our money, our likes, our grief?
1. How to Survive a Disaster Movie
Be white. Be thin. Speak English. Have a life gorgeous enough that when the earth swallows your city whole, viewers will have something to mourn. This means blond kids scootering across the cul-de-sac, PTA meetings, date night, babysitters with their hair in long braids. Don’t worry if you argue with your wife, your kids—a little strife is good for your chances. How else will you understand what is important, as you stand on a cliff watching the waves eat your city, or as the zombies storm through alleys and windows? The disaster is nothing without your character development.
If you’re white, but don’t have a family, I’m sorry. You’ll die in the third act but it will be noble, a sacrifice, people will feel sad for you. You’ll have good lines and screen time, maybe a funeral, one of those ragtag visions of dignity in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
If you’re not white, and worse, not light-skinned, rich, educated, or with a white girlfriend or child, I’m sorry. You’re an extra, a background face, a hidden pain. If you want to escape this fate, be the comic relief. You’ll be surprised how long they’ll keep up the joke, even to the final act.
But if you are perfect, rich, white, the movie will keep you as long as you have unfinished business. All you have to do is find your family. The disaster is not the lava that seeks to destroy your city, or the wave engulfing the coast. The true disaster is that you were unhappy, even for a moment.
2. How to Do the Impossible
Maria and Henry are in trouble. They are two affluent British expats living in Japan, currently vacationing on a gorgeous sand-swept Thai resort to celebrate Henry’s promotion. Their three young sons are cute and expressive and properly rowdy, the way that boys should be. Maria is played by Naomi Watts, Henry by Ewan McGregor. They’re the perfect family and we already know that they will survive whatever comes.
What comes is Thailand’s deadly 2004 tsunami, a wall of water full of dangerous trunks and branches, debris that separates flesh from bone. The wave ends the vacation, separates the family. Maria is trapped up a tree with one of her sons, her tank top torn to expose a breast, an ugly wound running red in the water. Eventually they’re found by Thai rescuers. These rescuers aren’t subtitled, because their words have no bearing on the goal of the movie, which is to reunite the perfect family. Earlier, a Thai hotel attendant had bantered with the Maria, his questions a vehicle for information. What do you do for a living? Where are you coming from? And having asked his questions, he disappeared. When the wave hit, where was he?
After their initial rescue, mother and son careen down the road in the back of a rescue truck, brown bodies piled high and anonymous around them, punctuated briefly by living white bodies who shudder and sob, survivors from the resort. We’re less than half an hour in, but it’s clear within the world of this movie, called The Impossible, that white people suffer, but Thai people die.
The Impossible ends when the family finds each other, and are sent in a private plane by their insurance company to Singapore, where state of the art technology will save their lives. They’ve done the impossible. Maria, her gangrenous leg propped up in a hospital bed, stares out of the window at the ravaged Thai coast and sobs. They’ve survived, they are together, and the movie has permission to end.
The Impossible is an extreme example of the tropes that exist within disaster movies as a genre. When it came out, it was debated hotly, and supporters were quick to identify that the movie is the story of a real family from Spain. I have no doubt that this family suffered, perhaps continues to suffer. And I have no doubt that it felt like a miracle, perhaps even was, that they survived. But consider the movie’s tagline: “nothing is more powerful than the human spirit.” What does that mean for the five thousand Thai people who did not live? Those who died later in understaffed hospitals? Those who survived but could not sustain their livelihood? Those who had to continue without the people and places they love? Did they simply not have enough spirit? When we talk about the margins, we ask: Who is allowed to die with dignity? And whose deaths will be fully mourned?
Disaster fiction is inside of us. From the Godzilla to Titanic to 2012 to San Andreas , we come out for it. It sells. It dominates our consciousness. The destruction of the world has become a fantastical spectacle, even as reality rushes to meet what we see on the screen, with sea levels rising, fire raging along the California coast, typhoons and hurricanes brewing over the ocean. These movies have patterns, formulas. And this would not be so important if it wasn’t made apparent, again and again, that the lives prioritized in these glittering, orchestral films, are the ones prioritized in real life.
In the disaster movie, beautiful white people can always do what’s impossible for everyone else. In real life, it’s not so different.
3. How to Slay the Monster
The original Godzilla (Gojira) was conceived in the early-mid 1950s, not even a decade after American forces dropped atomic bombs and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the true impetus for the incident came in 1954. A fishing vessel unknowingly strayed next to an American hydrogen bombing site, and all those on board were sprayed with high levels of toxic radiation. Aikichi Kuboyama, the ship’s radioman, soon died. The rest recovered, but suffered from radioactive poisoning for the months and years to come.
In the movie, Godzilla was an ancient being awoken from the folds of the earth by Americans’ hydrogen bombs. The monster went on to destroy not only human lives, but the city itself, ripping buildings from their foundations, plucking trains from the railroads and destroying them with sharp teeth. The movie is a clear allegory against the weaponization of radioactive weapons, and yet because of its spectacle, was embraced by Americans and America from the inception. That 1954 movie was a hit, and since then Hollywood has regurgitated remakes.
There must be, I think, a deliberate lack of understanding on the part of these American directors. When Godzilla itself is an embodiment of American nuclear warfare, how can such a movie be placed in America? To transform Tokyo into San Francisco, to change a Japanese protagonist to a white American, worse, to place one of these protagonists in the United States Army, seems against the foundation that the franchise was built on. I wonder how this can be a matter of ignorance when it is so obvious—in the very bones of the monster.
In the most recent remake, which stars Bryan Cranston, a Japanese scientist played by Ken Watanabe dramatically offers an army commander a watch stopped at the exact time of day that Hiroshima was bombed. This is his function in the narrative: to serve as a warning.
But of course, the formula is still followed. The white protagonist saves the day. Unsurprising. Upsetting.
4. How to Almost Get it Right
Mad Max: Fury Road was praised for its feminism, and by the modern Hollywood standard, it is a feminist film, surprisingly so. It’s a good movie, maybe one of the best action movies in the past decade. But watch it quick and see the white faces, the flour-like mixture caked on each torso, the sun-bleached hair, the teeth chattering white in the sunshine. These are the antagonists, and though there could be an argument made that the movie is vilifying whiteness, the protagonists who oppose them are still white—even if they don’t paint their faces. Even here you see the pull of the white gaze on the disaster. Mad Max takes place in an apocalyptic wasteland, cancerous and bright. The movie takes a desert landscape, an issue, desertification, prevalent primarily in Africa, the Middle East, parts of South and Central America, and peoples it with white Americans for no discernable reason.
If you’re watching for racial politics, a disaster movie marathon will make you no fun at parties. White supremacy thrives inside the bounds of the genre, and even subversions are not truly subversive. Again and again the world ends, and the survivors all look related to one another. The problem is not that white communities cannot or do not suffer from environmental disasters, it’s that their suffering has become the world’s monster, the thing that tramples all other suffering under its feet.
And it doesn’t mean that when disaster movies become diverse, or carefully told, or are placed in POC and non-American hands, that disasters will dissipate, that aid will be in plenty. But when Americans consume media that privileges white survival, over and over again, then what does it mean for what disasters earn our attention, our money, our likes, our shares, our hours, our grief? The cookie-cutter white protagonist is relatable to Americans in a way that people of color are not—he brings in ticket sales, and his life (middle class, perfect family) is the one desired by most. But we have nothing to lose by focusing on the specific, on, for example, a Thai protagonist. No, the diverse disaster movie won’t solve anything, but maybe it will mean that non-white people will be able to watch what America watches, and receive some signal that their living is valued.
After all, we’re only lifetimes away from the apocalypse. By non-Western standards, we are already knee-deep. What else would we call the 59,000 farmer suicides that have taken place in India over the last thirty years, as crops refuse to yield? What do we call the drought that means that 14.8 million people are in need of water in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya? Who’s dying? Not those of us with light skin and air conditioning. The ghost of our own world lies under the ones in our screen. The seams split and the phantom comes out—there are few visions of the earth that do not privilege whiteness.
5. How to Understand Disaster
What would it look like to have a movie or a work of art that accurately portrays our current eco-crisis, that acknowledges the sliding scale of privilege, and centers the pain that’s been suppressed into silence? It’s not a mystery; it’s been done.
Octavia Butler’s classic Parable of the Sower , the story of a young woman finding her God in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, which reads sometimes like a prophecy, sometimes like an intonation, sometimes like a voice in the dark.
Attack the Block , which I caveat as having a white director, the dramedy about teenagers in a British housing project fighting off an alien force, by themselves, with no help from the authorities.
Wave , by Sonali Deraniyagala, one of the most painful works I’ve read, a memoir about a woman who loses her children, her husband, and her parents to 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—the same disaster portrayed in The Impossible .
Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind , beautifully animated works of ecocriticism, relevant forever.
There are soft, true ways to look at a world in pain.
Much has been lost, and it seems like much will still be lost. When New York goes underwater, we will call it the apocalypse. When Dhaka, Fiji, Colombo, Accra are flooded, we will call it merely a disaster. One is the end, the other is a headline.
There’s no mark for the end of the world. Until the sun turns the earth into a scrap of ash, it will continue to exist, bruised. Even the end of humanity will not destroy the earth under our feet. But we won’t call it the apocalypse when the ocean takes cities full of brown and Black bodies back into its mouth, we’ll call it the apocalypse when Western Civilisation becomes something we don’t recognize anymore. When the pain of the white family can no longer be reversed.