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Who You Calling Illegal, Pilgrim: Children of Men review

Guest Blogger • Jun 19, 2008

By Walidah Imarisha

“As a struggle for the rights of immigrants and against discrimination emerged, Haitians and Dominicans began to coalesce, but the Irish were a bit stand-offish. Immigrant rights activists were at first perplexed until they uncovered that the Irish were being encouraged by Irish American politicians to keep themselves separate from other immigrant groups because it was likely that a ‘special’ deal could be cut for them. To put it another way, the Irish were being trained to become and accept becoming white,” Bill Fletcher, a civil rights and labor activist, said in “Another Side to Race and Immigration,” in ZNet’s July 30, 2007 issue.

Shot: Pan across a cage full of people, being watched over by military personnel and police with machine guns and dogs. They’re all refugees/immigrants, called “fugees” in this context. We see a tall black man, then right next to him a very small old white woman. The white woman is speaking German, and if you understand German, you know she’s complaining about being put next to a “schwartze” (German for black). The depth of this scene, that a white woman fugee is more worried about being next to a black man fugee than the fact that the military and police are going to put a bullet in her head. This is a powerful statement about the dialogue about immigration today, that it can never be severed from a discussion of race. And if you don’t understand German, you would have missed it.

That is the only mention of race at all in Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 science fiction/dystopic release Children of Men. And again, if you don’t speak German, you didn’t get it. The film, set in London in 2027, looks to a future where humans aren’t reproducing: the last baby was popped out 18 years before. The world is falling to pieces, the economy is at an all time low.

An innovative, daring but ultimately disappointing exploration of and reflection on immigration policies as they stand today, Children of Men runs screaming from having any dialogue where it links race and immigration. Without the discussion of race, we end up with this film, which has so many gaping holes we could drive a mack truck through them.

It is never explained why so many fugees are coming to England. There is no discussion of the world outside of England, except for this ad shown on the subway: “The world has collapsed; Only Britain soldiers on.” Soldiering on means lining up fugees and shooting them in the street. Because the film refuses to discuss race overtly, we’re left to fill in why so many people are trying to get into England: that in a global economic collapse, the third world would be the hardest hit, and would flock to the centers of capital, i.e., countries that have benefited from white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. But to say that clearly would mean acknowledging the exploitation of the third world by world superpowers. It would mean talking about race, and as important, power.

“Recognizing the racialization of immigration should help one understand that much of what we’re witnessing is a scapegoating of Latinos for much larger forces and factors that are underway in US society… the restructuring of capitalism that has been underway and that immigrants are the victims rather than the source,” says Bill Fletcher.

In the end, this story in the film is not, and can not, be the story of fugees and their struggle to get free and have self-determination, because to tell their story would be to tell the story of racism. The fugees, pretty much throughout the film, regardless of the country they originated from, are faceless, nameless, powerless, voiceless and usually grotesque stereotypes, like the Middle Eastern fugees riding horses screaming “AllahuAkbar.”

It is not even the story of Kee [Clare-Hope Ashitey], an underage black fugee prostitute who gives birth to the first baby born in almost two decades, and is trying to escape both government repression and the exploitation of her baby as a symbol by the “revolutionary” pro-Fugee organization called the Fishes. The reality is that for any young black immigrant sista to stay alive on the mean streets of London as a sex worker, she’s gotta have some pretty baaaad survival instincts and intuition of her own. But if they showed that, they’d have to talk about why young immigrant women of color are so disproportionately forced into sex work, and a whole lotta other subjects Cuaron was clearly not willing to touch. So she becomes a mindless automaton, being told by someone else what to do.

And that someone else is, predictably, the male hero, and predictably a white man: Theo, [Clive Owen], a white former radical on his journey to find something to believe in again, and finds it through helping Kee reach the Human Project, a group of scientists who will supposedly take care of her and also help the world repopulate. This film is told through Theo’s eyes, and the movie ends, not when Kee reaches the Human Project. We don’t even know what happens to Kee at the end of the movie. The movie ends when Theo dies, because the film was about Theo’s journey, and when that journey is over, the credits start to roll.

That is because ultimately Children of Men replicates the same conversation that this nation and the world are having about immigration. Regardless of whether it’s the left or the right, we are listening to u.s. born white men’s voices, interpretations and perceptions about immigration. The voices, power and self-determination of people of color, are lost in the sauce, and instead we’re left simply waiting for a great white savior to come tell us what to do. The true failing of Children of Men is that it was an opportunity to reframe the debate, and truly put immigrant populations and people of color at the center of the discussion, and finally allow those voices to be not only heard, but respected.

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