I found myself rewatching Children of Men the other night. This 2006 film is worth watching, especially for its portrayal of an isolated, xenophobic Britain. The premise is simple: the world’s last baby was born in 2009. Fast forward to 2027, and two things happen on the same day: that last baby is accidentally killed in a bar brawl, and our hero, Theo Faron, becomes embroiled in a plot to smuggle a miraculously pregnant woman, Kee, out of the UK. Kee, you see, is a “fugee”, one of those refugees that the UK is so desperate to be rid of. There are terrorist rebels that pretend to help Kee in order to use her baby as a symbol driving The Uprising (you can hear the capital letters when they speak), while there are other rebels that are simply afraid that the government won’t admit that someone, who isn’t a loyal white Briton, is the first pregnant woman in nearly two decades. Theo has to race against time, against two groups of terrorists, and against a corrupt police force to get Kee to a friendly boat waiting off-shore at Bexhill-on-Sea. As long as you don’t think about it, it’s quite an exciting tale. Julianne Moore makes an entertaining terrorist cell leader, and Clive Owen does a credible job as a reluctant action hero.
Once you think about it, it’s a bit more disturbing. What makes Kee, our heroine, a threat to the status quo? Well, she’s black, for one thing. I don’t have a problem with that, because the movie is intended to depict a racist, oppressive society, so it makes sense that the underdog in a racist Britain would be black. Unfortunately, in addition to being black, she’s an unwed mother who has had sex with so many men that she has no idea who the father of the miracle baby might be. In other words, this science-fiction parable denouncing racism in the UK has chosen a stereotype to be its symbol of the downtrodden.
Ironically, when you look at the IMDB listing, you will see that Claire-Hope Ashitey, a fine British actress that has gone on to do more featured work in Suspects, doesn’t even make the “first-billed” list. Kee, the pivotal woman without whom the whole story would not have occurred, is actually listed below important characters such as “Café Customer”, “Caged German Grandmother”, “Dog Track Woman”, and even “Cigar Man”.
As a writer, I’m familiar with the problem and sympathize with the notion that this can happen by accident. It happens to me too. Often, you have a character that is simply the Macguffin, a word coined by Alfred Hitchcock to refer to the thing that the lead character is chasing. That’s what Kee is here: she’s not the heroine of the story, she’s the mechanism for getting Theo to face the injustice of this imagined British society. In Everything I Know About Zombies, I Learned in Kindergarten, Jahayra plays much the same role: she’s the motivator for getting Letitia into action, but doesn’t do much herself. I even sympathize with accidental stereotyping, as I’ve done the same thing myself. I have a subplot about the construction of a garden, a task which the children apply themselves to quite industriously. Finally, as I was proofreading the section over and over, I realized that I had written a story in which one of the major goals of a group of black children was to grow watermelons. The issue of stereotyping hadn’t even occurred to me when writing, but, when editing, they quickly became cantaloupes. The last thing I wanted was people thinking I was making some kind of racist commentary over something completely irrelevant to the plot point, which was about people seeking to produce rather than steal or beg. A positive message could have quickly become a negative one through nothing more than inattention on my part.
Still, in Children of Men, I think they went a little far, and a little beyond simple inattention. Could Kee not have been a displaced Kenyan woman, hopelessly devoted to a husband that has been lost to racial violence? An actual black British woman? A doctor? An architect? Anything but a promiscuous street urchin? Certainly, and an interesting, exciting movie wouldn’t have an annoying issue. Somebody on the writing staff needed to play the same game of “find the watermelon”.
Kevin Wayne Williams, author of Everything I Know About Zombies, I Learned in Kindergarten, has been an engineer for much of his life, beginning with GTE in 1980. He rose through the ranks and eventually became an executive in Silicon Valley. In 2004, tired of it all, he fled the country with his wife, Kathy. They opened a hotel on Bonaire, a small Dutch island north of Venezuela. In 2009, for reasons he still doesn’t quite understand, they returned to the United States.
He has since resumed his engineering career, but writes novels to help dull the pain.
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