Before I get into this, I want to say I really enjoyed Aquaman. I was ready to crap all over the film but I left the theater eating my words. Sure its long and bloated with enough material for three movies but it was fun-as-hell. The battles were pure eye candy, James Wan didn’t take the character too seriously which lead to some hilariously cheesy, albeit enjoyable moments. I rented it for another viewing the other day and showed a group of friends and it was just as fun the second time around.
My qualm with the film is how it handles its multiracial protagonist Arthur Curry (Aquaman). Aquaman is a film that revels in the idea that being multiracial means being emotionally and biologically stronger, more progressive, and just overall better, but fails to explain why. Traveling the well-trodden troupe of a hero caught in a tug-of-war between the diametrically opposed cultures of their biological makeup (See: Blade, Star Trek, Underworld, Vampire Hunter D). While Curry isn’t quite the brooding Blade or stoic Spock, he is a loner. He doesn’t have a place in Atlantis and on land we never see, nor is it implied that Curry spends time around any humans besides his father and those he rescues from the sea. He mostly drinks and keeps to himself. We get little insights into how he sees himself like the dialogue in the introduction. Overlapping the chance meeting of his parents in the opening scene, Curry tells us,
“My father was a lighthouse keeper. My mother was a queen. They were never meant to meet. But their love saved the world. They made me what I am: a son of the land, a king of the seas. I am the protector of the deep.”
-Arthur Curry (Aquaman)
All of this resonates deeply with me. As the child of a black man and white woman, the metaphor connected immediately. I feel sympathy towards this type of character. The ones who don’t fit in, who never feel like they are enough, those who quietly shoulder their burden alone. I feel that weight in my chest.
Where the film loses me is when it (like so many others in this tired troupe) decides to lay the collective weight of international/cultural/diplomatic relations on one person whose genetic make-up just so happens to link the two worlds. Instead of exploring some of the nuance and anxiety often experienced by multiracial/mixed folks, Curry acts as a walking, breathing MacGuffin. The film quickly establishes (with no explanation) Curry’s race is the first, last, and only solution to the seemingly inevitable race war, and we spend the subsequent two hours chasing this idea.
You might ask, what’s so wrong with that? Doesn’t love conquer all? I get the impulse. The quickest, most obvious way to dispel a belief in genetic superiority or the inherent separation of races, is to show the (sexy) product of a multiracial couple.
*Note: Black audiences will recognize this troupe for what it is, a simpler, more digestible way to humanize non-whites. Empathizing with a dark skin character is often a bridge too far. That’s why we see anthropomorphic animals (Planet of the Apes), humanoid aliens (Avatar), artificial intelligence/androids (The Matrix Franchise, Blade Runner) serve as racial metaphors without ever having to offer any subversive or critical takes on race. Instead, they give audiences simple, digestible metaphors that are often thematically decades behind progress but provide enough catharsis to trick white folks into thinking they ‘get it.’
But multiracial people aren’t the solution to nationalism or prejudice or solving race relations. In case you were unaware, there were multiracial men and women 400 years ago. There were hundreds of thousands of multiracial babies born throughout slavery in the United States and somehow… it didn’t fix systemic oppression, nor did slow the tide of Jim Crow. Instead, we got the One Drop Rule.
“Your half-brother, King Orm, is about to declare war upon the surface world. The only way to stop his war is for you to take your rightful place as King.”
Growing up mixed (black/white) there were many white folks along the way who assured me of the post-racial fantasy: “everyone will look like you in fifty years,” or that “eventually everyone’s gonna fuck everyone else and we’ll all be some shade of brown.” I’ve heard a million variations of this sentiment from the young and old, all liberals. I even believed it myself for a number of years. I sort of wore the possibility of a mixed up future like a badge of pride. Like I made it to a lame party I knew would be bumping in a few hours. Even up to a few years ago I would get revved up about the multiracial possibilities ahead on the horizon the potential of multiracial men and women to be the bridge of understanding and unity between two races. Now it’s just frustrating. It’s cynicism masquerading as optimism. Just as the race relations in the world of Aquaman have reached a boiling point, so too have relations in our reality. Somehow this hasn’t produced an innovation in thought or problem-solving, rather we seem to cling all the stronger to the simplest solutions, the ones that let us feel good without exerting much thought or energy.
Aquaman offers the same sort of racial catharsis that films like Green Book put forth. The antagonist is so backward and ignorant that they say egregious things like, “A half-breed mongrel dares to come and take the sacred relic of King Atlan?” providing a distinct image of ‘what a bigot looks like’ thus giving some audience members the sigh of relief, “That’s a bad person. That’s what a racist looks like?” The unspoken, yet understood sentiment is: Not Me.