Game of Thrones (2011–2019), Avengers: Endgame (2019) and the lesson from Psycho (1960)

Can you die in a dream? The answer is, Yes. But I’ve found it odd. Say you dream that you fall off a roof. You scream as you fall. Then you hit the ground. There are limited choices for what happens next. Do you continue to dream, only as a corpse? Do you wake up? Become a ghost and move around? I’ve noticed that one thing that happens is that I’ll shift identity, become another person in the story.

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I remember story structure guru Robert McKee talking about how an audience seeks identification in a movie. That in THE GODFATHER we identified with Michael because, although he was a vicious bastard, at least he loved his family. In a world of vicious gangsters, he was a NICE vicious gangster. The center of good.

And McKee mentioned “Psycho”, where after the death of Janet Leigh, the audience was confused. Wasn’t she the viewpoint character? Imagine seeing the movie through her eyes, and then experiencing the savagery of her death. We, as the audience are now disembodied. Who do we identify with? Through whose eyes do we view the rest of the film. We search, and search…and settle on Norman Bates. He may be a creep…but he loves his Mommy. The center of good.

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When I was a kid, and would go see movies like “The Dirty Dozen” or “Damnation Alley” or “Ice Station Zebra” or “Wrath of Khan’ the other kids in my neighborhood would scoff at me. “How’d they kill the brother this time?” they would ask, because they knew that was the probable outcome. And looking back over my life, after hearing that lecture from McKee, I wondered about the psychological effects of seeing a movie when you knew a man who looked like you was likely to die. Do you identify with him, and accept that pain and anxiety?

I remember a Mad Magazine cartoon about a silhouetted family watching a western. A scene of cowboys slaughtering Indians on the screen. The kids were cheering. Then a reverse angle showed that the family was Native American. The adults sat stone faced. The kids, looking for someone to cheer for, loved the cowboys. Of course.

As I cheered for the British when I watched “Zulu”. You don’t want to die. So you find a safe place to stand. Remember that civil rights case, where the black kids were proven to prefer white dolls, after a lifetime of segregation and negative images?

Yeah, its like that. Dying hurts. We’ll do anything to avoid it. Even cheer for our killers.

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I got a lot of agreement, and a lot of push-back on the observation that the deaths in INFINITY WAR were not randomly assigned, and that the racial tilt (just for fun, both the first and last deaths were black men) was a sign that ALL the decision makers had been white, and that that was the moment I decided that nothing but diversity behind the camera was going to fix this. Entirely too many white guys wanted to argue with me about it. I engaged in enough of this to realize that these were the same people who argued about black death in films as a whole, and black male asexuality in successful films (specifically, no black man had ever had a love scene in a 100 million domestic film until December of 2015 and CREED). Those were matters of simple statistics, and they STILL argued. So if it was a subtler problem, the chances of convincing them were nil.

And that is if they were arguing honestly.

Of course, considering that NO ONE, EVER admits to ENJOYING images of black death, or being REPULSED by images of black sexuality (personal and genetic extinction). One knows that this is either the strangest statistical fluke in history, or there is a whole lot of lying going on. Not everyone, but enough to make it absurd to extend simple trust.

I try never to assume the only people who disagree with me are knaves or fools. If I can’t find some way to explain it that doesn’t vilify, I keep looking for deeper reasons. My answer: assume it is primarily unconscious. My theory: that those unconscious images are indicative of deep value structures, beliefs, and preference on the part of artists and audiences.

Yes, I look at images in artwork as expressive of the artist’s values and beliefs. And the popularity of that work of art as reflective of the audience’s values and beliefs. Now, INTERPRETING that, figuring out what might be going on, offers a world of interpretative fun. Especially through the lenses of gender and race relations.

But if you don’t think I notice the sexual fantasies in “Fifty Shades of Gray” and how popular they are with women, you’re nuts. What might it mean? Oh, I think everyone has a theory. But that’s for another time.

If you think I didn’t notice that if someone suggested that Captain Marvel was the very first asexual hero, you couldn’t find much evidence to refute it…you’re nuts. What it might mean…? No real conclusions.

If you think I ignore the single black male character in “Game of Thrones” being a eunuch built like a teenaged girl, you’re nuts. And anyone who thinks I don’t have a conclusion to draw about this, as Bugs Bunny was fond of saying, “He don’t know me too well, do he?” Consider the “Breeding Circle” theory: basically, if you consider your tribe in competition with another tribe, you will be uncomfortable at the sight of mating behavior in males of that tribe, and will therefore prefer males who are not reproductively competitive. “Too old, too young, too fat, too gay, too asexual or too dead to cock-block” is the usual pattern. Enemies and competitors are kicked out of the “breeding circle.”

Can’t PROVE anything about any of this…but it is tempting to wonder what’s going on in the unconscious minds of the filmmakers. Now, this happened in the original STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE, with zero black characters…except for the VOICE of the villainous Darth Vader, James Earl Jones. Someone pointed it out to Lucas, shifting things into the conscious category, and BANG, you get Billy Dee Williams in the next movie. (And of course, the moment Darth turns good, we shift his face and voice to paler status. Coincidence, of course. Cough cough.)

See that? Unconscious is a world of white people, integrated only by black villainy. Conscious is “well, of course there will be diversity in the galaxy far, far away…”. Same thing in a great deal of SF — total exclusion, sacrifice, neutering, or extinction…until you call the attention to it, and BOOM. “Why, we were planning that the whole time…”. Uh huh.

Watching “Logan’s Run” recently it was so glaringly obvious that ALL of the hundreds of actors extras are white. But Roscoe Lee Browne is the voice of the villainous robot. What fun, huh?

Or “Blade’s” world of hypersexualized vampires (hell, just to make the point, they even hired porn star Tracy Lords, to play the lead female vampire) Blade apparently has no genitalia. Snarls nice, though. (And the story that Wesley was promised a love interest in the third movie, only for the studio and director to renege once they had his name on the contract, would certainly explain the troubles we heard about on the set, wouldn’t it?)

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The fact that NO ONE will take responsibility, and EVERYONE blames everyone else: the audiences blame the studios, the studios blame the filmmakers, the filmmakers say its all an accident, or governed by the needs of an audience that claims not to care. Remember the game of keep-away we played in gradeschool? Where someone would steal your hat or lunch, one guy tossing it to another every time you caught them. “Hey! I don’t have it…”

Know what I did? When I caught a kid, and he tossed my lunch to the next kid, I punched him. Then I caught the next kid, and if he tossed it, I punched him, too. The third kid gave me my damned lunch.

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I’ve seen so many passionate notes from people claiming that THEY’VE never avoided a movie that had image X or Y. Never! THEY never brought or didn’t buy a book based on images on the cover. NEVER. Never hired or fired anyone, never chose friends or lovers on that basis, no cop has ever admitted pulling anyone over, no bank manager admitted making loan decisions. No judge or jury admitted to convicting or sentencing based on skin color.

NO ONE. EVER. And yet the statistics are all skewed.

There was, I hear, a pattern in the British military. If a dishonorable thing had been done (say, someone stealing a pie) and no one confessed, it was obvious that the pie hadn’t stolen itself. It would be absurd to not suspect someone was lying, so the entire company was considered equally guilty, and punished, until the culprit confessed.

Kinda like that. My thought is that people DO make decisions on the basis of race and gender, they do have unpopular notions and position, and THEY LIE ABOUT IT. Sometimes to themselves, but certainly to the world.

Whenever you see something that NO ONE will confess to, but is clearly going on, dishonesty of one kind or another is often the simple answer. Now, we can certainly do the firing squad thing, and give one soldier a blank. We can admit that some people really ARE telling the truth. So calm down: I’m not talking about YOU of course. Just the person next to you. On either side.

Same goes for them.

As we approach END GAME and GAME OF THRONES, I remember last weekend, when BOTH “Pet Sematary” and “SHAZAM” featured magical, Sacrificial Negroes. I didn’t much mind it in “Pet Sematary” because that whole MOVIE is fucked up. But I did lose all empathy for the family the instant the filmmakers did that, and sat back, munched popcorn, and enjoyed watching the demons chew them up and spit them out. And laughed at the end.

Yeah, I said it.

And with “Shazam” it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared, because there were a couple of very minor other black characters beside the “wise old black wizard” desperately searching for a white kid to give his power to before he died, sob sob. Eh…you could tell that the filmmakers were TRYING to do good, but got caught in their blind spots. The movie really was quite sweet natured and good hearted, in its way. I bear it no ill will.

Where is he?

But as I go into “Game Of Thrones” only Lucian Gabriel Wiina Msamati’s pirate “Salladhor Saan” plays a black man I’d want to be, or want my son to be. He might have appeared onscreen for five minutes out of sixty or so hours, and he’s disappeared from the narrative, unless I blinked and missed his death. If he returns, I’ll certainly perk up. Other than that, I can’t help wishing they’d left us out, if the best they can do in their hypersexualized world is an Unsullied ex-slave without a will of his own, who no reproductive competition whatsoever. And sorry, but I HAVE seen cheerleaders with more masculine physiques. Bite me.

Separated at birth?

I am so done with pretending not to see what I see. Sure, I’ll watch, and enjoy the hell out of it. But won’t pretend the filmmakers aren’t displaying their fantasies, their view of the proper order of the universe. And I will take pleasure in watching some of those characters die, yes I will. And the people who enjoy, and argue, and got upset at Jordan Peele saying that no, he wasn’t interested in making movies with white heroes, because he’s already seen that movie?

You are asleep at best. And some of you slither.

You are welcome to enjoy the fantasies you love. But you don’t get to pretend those images are meaningless.

I’ll enjoy watching “Game of Thrones” because it is a once-in-a-lifetime cultural event, beautifully produced and performed and intricately designed, written, and directed. I’ll have my filters up though.

And I’ll enjoy “Avengers: Endgame.” Already have my ticket. Will sit in the audience with my popcorn and honey-glazed almonds (and no drink!) and root for Thanos. Nah, I won’t, because poor crippled Rhodey survived, bionic from the waist down but hey, who’s counting? I’ll root for the heroes. With my filters up.

But I won’t forget, and I won’t pretend, and no, if you bring us into it, and kill us or emasculate us, no I won’t identify with your white characters instead. And remember: if you think this is unreasonable, just ask yourself why there is NO AMERICAN FILM where all the white characters die, if anyone else at all survives. Not a single one. Of COURSE this isn’t your doing. Of course you wouldn’t care. No one in the audience would. Or at the studio. Nobody here but us chickens.

I see the game, and I can live with it. And now, you can either go back to sleep, or see the game too. I don’t begrudge anyone the pleasure of their fantasies, but I won’t collaborate in pretending they don’t indicate the world as some part of you wishes it existed.

Here’s the good news: this stuff is universal. This isn’t some special white perfidy, just an ugly tribalistic aspect of human nature. In a reversed world, (say the world of my own LION’S BLOOD) this would be reversed. And white characters would die nobly and sexlessly for the pleasure of black audiences, who would swear up and down and sideways that hey, they didn’t ask for that, and hey, you’re hallucinating that there is any kind of pattern.

I honestly don’t know who I’d be in that world. I honestly don’t know if I’d notice, or believe what was going on, or if I’d resent it being pointed out to me. Shut up and let me enjoy my fantasy I might well have said. Much like the person sitting next to you. On either side.

I’d like to think that I could hold that truth as self-evident, BUT I DON’T KNOW.

I can only hope. And wish to hell I’d had the chance to find out.

Namaste

Steve

www.sunkenplaceclass.com

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts. www.realwarriorsjourney.com