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July 26, 2007

Blackface Goes HD? The Case of Resident Evil 5

Posted in: Games,Race

OK, we all know zombies gotta die. And I loved Resident Evil 4. So why do these early images from the next installment of the Resident Evil franchise make me so queasy?

After all, in RE4, you spend the game shooting equally out-of-their-mind Spaniards. But, then, the Spanish haven’t been so egregiously misrepresented as blacks through the ages, have they? Not even close.

From Birth of a Nation to Black Hawk Down, black folk are apparently responsible for some of the most mindless and evil activities you got. Rape, murder, satanic voodoo. With bulging eyes, simian super strength, and a room temperature IQ, we’ve been portrayed as savages beyond redemption. So, when we see images like these, it doesn’t just resonate with the long lived zombie genre, it also triggers memories of so many awful stereotypes — and what those stereotypes have been used to justify past and present. Put down the crazed negroes before they take the white women! And so on…

But perhaps the most troubling part is that these scenes seem to be set in Africa; the “dark continent.” With all the positive steps being taken of late to raise awareness of the good things happening in Africa as well as the urgent need in some parts of the continent, we really can’t afford this kind of step back. We need to find ways to humanize Africans, not dehumanize them.

George Romero’s genre-defining 1968 film Night of the Living Dead is often read as a black empowerment tale. It’s ironic, then, that 40 years later, the preeminent zombie franchise appears poised to give us just the opposite. If LocoRoco’s Mojas were a kind of high tech blackface, Resident Evil 5 takes blackface into the HD era. It’s horror alright, just not the kind Capcom intended.

Find more history of black characters in games at The First 11 Black Videogame Stars. And the full trailer for RE5 at Gamersyde.

 Follow-up post Race in Games: Culture, Context, and Controversy

Thanks to those who have posted thoughtful responses. My main concern here is really for the perception of black countries. Over the years, many of them have been portrayed as uncivilized and recently a good deal has been done to change that thinking (particularly in Africa). But there’s still a lot more work to do.

I do understand the characters presented in the trailer are zombies. Still, I find the proximity of those zombies to old school long lived black stereotypes alarming. And that’s what my post is about.

So, perhaps the deeper question is: How are black countries and those who live in them portrayed in games now? How have they been portrayed in the popular media and movies? Is it on par with other peoples and places in the world? If so, maybe it is time for a game like this. If not, then how do we respond?

Note to commenters: I will delete your comment for name calling or generally being obnoxious. I will not delete your comment for disagreeing with me.

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