Plot summary: In the near future, a strange fungus has changed nearly everyone into thoughtless, flesh-eating monsters the few survivors call Hungries. When a scientist and a teacher find a girl who seems to be immune to the fungus, they all begin a journey to save humanity.
Trigger/content warnings: This blog entry contains discussions of racism, child abuse and violence. It also contains rampant spoilers for the film version of The Girl With All The Gifts.
In this entry, I discuss how the casting of the British zombie horror film The Girl With All The Gifts makes it work as a parable for black people’s experience of racism.
Since my last batch of Halloween-themed blog posts dealt with horror films, I hadn’t originally planned to cover another horror film for awhile. However, I saw The Girl With All The Gifts in January and loved it so much that I had to bump it up in the (very loose) Girls Represent schedule. I also decided to cover it because it’s a recent film, which recently came to theatres in the US and was released on Region 2 DVD on January 23rd. I’m hoping that featuring it on the blog will spur people to check it out.
Based on a 2014 science fiction novel by M.R. Carey, The Girl With All The Gifts takes place after a fungal infection has turned most of humanity into flesh-eating zombies called Hungries. Some of the few survivors are military and scientific personnel on a bleak base in the Home Counties. There, they guard and study a group of very unusual children: second-generation Hungries who were infected with the disease in utero and ate their way out of their mothers’ wombs. At the age of roughly ten, the children have no idea what they are, or that their existence – confined in cells, regularly held at gunpoint and verbally abused by the guards, strapped into wheelchairs, given bowls of grubs to eat in order to sate their hunger for living flesh – is in any way out of the ordinary.
One of these children is our protagonist, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), an exceptionally bright black girl. She adores Miss Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a former psychologist who serves as the children’s teacher. Helen is the only person on the base who shows the children any warmth. The soldiers treat the children with suspicion and hostility, openly referring to them as “abortions.” Dr Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), the leader of the scientific arm of the base, studies the children and vivisects them in order to find a cure for the Hungry disease. Caldwell believes that Melanie’s DNA can be used to create a vaccine, but before she can harvest Melanie’s brain and spine, the base is overrun by Hungries. Melanie and Helen manage to escape the base with Caldwell, Sergeant Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) and Private Kieran Gallagher (Fisayo Akinade), meaning that Melanie is out in the world for the very first time. With her enhanced senses and ability to move undetected through large crowds of first-generation Hungries, Melanie proves invaluable to the adults as they make their way to a derelict city. The question remains: will Melanie be the key to saving humanity?
Given that M.R. Carey’s book specifically describes Melanie as a “very fair” white child and Miss Justineau as a dark-skinned black woman, the casting of black child actor Sennia Nanua and white actor Gemma Arterton in these roles has attracted criticism online. Despite the existence of many films about people of colour which resonate with widespread audiences – Moonlight and Hidden Figures being two recent examples – Hollywood and other Western cinemas still default to casting white people out of a belief that white stories are more widely identifiable and hence, more commercial. Comparatively few stories about people of colour ever make it to screen, meaning that casting canonically non-white characters with white actors is an extra slap in the face to audiences. It negatively impacts actors of colour, too, by massively reducing the number of roles they are able to even be considered for. That the child role in The Girl With All The Gifts went to a black actor and the adult lead to a white one did not escape the notice of a blogger at Mookychick, who argued
[I]t’s hard not to think about potential issues of line count and salary. A child actor is unlikely to command the same salary as a leading role. A child actor is likely to get less screen time, and certainly fewer lines. It’s hoped that young actors of colour will grow to adulthood in a film industry that doesn’t by default give the key roles, the greatest number of lines and (potentially) the highest salaries to white actresses and actors.
Truly, a science fiction horror film featuring a black woman mentoring and protecting a little girl, black or white, could have been incredible – until you consider the disturbing implications this could have for the ending of The Girl With All the Gifts specifically.
The casting of Melanie as a black girl injects greater meaning into an already thrilling story. For me, this is particularly noticeable in the film’s final act. Rendering Helen unconscious, Dr Caldwell begs Melanie to sacrifice herself so that her DNA can provide a cure for the Hungry disease. Melanie agrees, asking Dr Caldwell to tell Helen that she did this for her. Before she climbs onto the lab table for vivisection, Melanie asks Dr Caldwell if she believes that Melanie is truly alive, or merely mimicking human emotions. “Do you still think that, Dr Caldwell?”
“Do you?” demands Melanie.
“No,” Dr Caldwell admits.
“We’re alive?” Melanie asks, for herself and the other second-generation Hungries.
“Yes, you’re alive.”
A beat. “Then why should it be us who die for you?”
Why indeed? If Melanie is just as human and alive as Dr Caldwell, Helen and Sergeant Parks, why should she be required to prioritise them at all costs, even laying down her life for them? Why should she be required to provide them with a “long, full life … safe, surrounded by … love,” when they have imprisoned her and abused her for all of her own? In this moment, Melanie decides to prioritise herself and the other Hungry children by ushering in a new phase of humanity.
After Caldwell is surrounded and devoured by feral second-generation Hungry children who roam the city’s streets, Melanie chooses to start a fire, releasing spores that will turn all remaining humans into Hungries. Melanie confines an unconscious Helen inside an airtight mobile laboratory, so that Helen alone of all humanity can retain her mind. She does this both out of love for Helen, and so that Helen can serve as a teacher for the Hungry children, providing them with the education they need to rebuild the world.
It’s a disquieting, even chilling conclusion to the story. Melanie, still smiling sweetly with nothing but love in her eyes, renders Helen a prisoner for life. Yet the ending feels just and even hopeful at the same time, as Melanie does exactly what Helen was content to stand by and see done to others. To children. Yes, Helen drew the line at Caldwell dissecting children – or rather, at dissecting Melanie, her favourite student – but was content with incarcerating them and subjecting them to barbaric treatment. All Melanie’s life, she has been kept alive because the future of the human race depended on her. Now, Helen will be kept alive – comfortable, yet confined – because she is now the key to the future, even if she doesn’t have a place in it herself. This is what Melanie has always known, so it makes sense that she would deem it reasonable.
This is where the casting works, for me. I would rather see a film about a black child escaping captivity and thriving than one which ends with a black woman confined in a cage. I don’t believe that society has moved far enough from the days of slavery and human zoos to shrug off the racial baggage around black bodies in captivity. Granted, I am not sure how this ending would have come across had Melanie and Helen both been played by black actors. This may have helped to evade the unfortunate racial implications of depicting a black woman enslaved to teach and care for mostly white children, or it may have opened up deep wounds by showing black women doing serious harm to one another. I would love to hear from black readers of this blog about their take on this.
The brutal treatment of the second-generation Hungry children at the hands of the humans is the kind of metaphor for racial prejudice I can get behind; one in which a person of colour occupies the starring role. I’m tired of stories which try to evoke sympathy for marginalised people by swapping their roles so that, for example, heterosexual people are bullied by gays and lesbians. (Somehow, bisexuals, transgender people and nonbinary people never exist in these kinds of stories, but I digress.) Films like White Man’s Burden and Love Is All You Need? ask, “What if it happened to you, white/straight person?” to get people to care, which is horribly patronising when, for thinking, feeling people, knowing that these injustices are happening to anybody else ought to be enough.
In light of this, the representation of a black girl deciding that enough is enough, that she owes it to herself to live, is extraordinary. It has relevance for social justice movements, in which women of colour are often required to prioritise the needs of white women or the concerns of men. Melanie’s realisation that she is not just a brain, a spinal cord and a highly developed sense of smell, but a person just as valuable as any other, causes her to advocate for herself. For these reasons, The Girl With All The Gifts works beautifully as a parable about race.